Environmental education for children is critically important and should start before school begins. Early environmental education experiences help shape children's values, perspectives, and understanding of the environment and how to interact with it. Yet many children have little or no meaningful exposure to environmental education or opportunities to connect with the natural world because they are involved with activities that isolate them from it.
Computers, video games, television, schools' emphasis on homework, a full after-school schedule of extracurricular activities, lack of access to natural areas — all these things and more are isolating children from the natural world and the advantages of environmental education.
In fact, it's been shown that fostering environmental education in children is critical because it:
- helps them develop into adults who understand and care about environmental stewardship
- nurtures their sense of wonder, imagination, and creativity
- provides them with a sense of beauty, calm, and refuge in a sometimes frightening world
- expands their intellectual development; it's been proven to improve test scores, grade-point averages, and problem solving skills
- enhances physical development and overall health
- helps them understand the interrelationship of all life
Many of the decisions you make on a daily basis affect the environment; for example, what household products to buy, how much driving to do, what items to recycle, what to buy for dinner, and what products to use on your lawn and garden. Children need to learn from a very early age that the environment has an impact on their lifestyle and quality of life. Similarly, their lifestyle has an impact on the environment.
Today's children will be responsible for making decisions that will shape the health of the environment. To prepare them for such responsibilities, they need a sound environmental education as a foundation from which to make those decisions.
I Did This!
You don't need to be a teacher to promote environmental education for children. In the classroom of life, we are all teachers, and we are all students. If you don't have children of your own, offer to help a grandchild, niece, nephew, or a friend or neighbor's child. Here are some ways you can foster environmental education:
- Assign chores to your children that involve environmental issues and talk about the impact their activities have on the environment; for example, make them responsible for recycling items in the house, gathering materials for the compost, filling the feeders for the wildlife, or watering the vegetable garden. Rotate responsibilities among your children, or if there is only one child, change the task periodically so he or she can have different experiences.
- Have an environmental birthday party. Ask the children to bring recyclable items for the recycle bins; activities can include making artwork using recycled objects such as bottle caps, plastic lids and paper mache; or make bird feeders using recyclable plastic bottles.
- Ask the librarian at a local or school library if you and a child can help create an environmental education display in their showcase.
- Create a mini environmental education plot in your backyard, for your children, grandchildren, or neighbors' children. You might include a birdhouse, bird bath, feeding station, rock piles, and logs; also plant flowers, herbs, or vegetables. Encourage the children to nurture the plot and to report on any changes and/or progress (the degree to which this can be done depends on the ages of the children).
- Explore the world of birds, butterflies, beetles, or bats, or any other creature that is easy to observe in your area and that interests your child. All you'll need is binoculars and perhaps a guide book or other nature book. Your child may want to keep a log book of the different types of birds or number of bats observed, when they were seen, etc.
- Lie on your back and look up. You can do this during the day or at night. Ask your child leading questions: What do the clouds look like to you? What types of birds do you see? Why do you think the sky is blue? What pictures do you see in the stars?
- Explore the local environment; for example, your front or back yard, a nearby park, an empty lot, a vegetable garden. Provide your child with a magnifying glass; perhaps a bucket, a small shovel, and some drawing paper and crayons. Let your child explore the environment through the lens of the magnifying glass — observe an ant hill, examine the veins in leaves, dig up some soil and see what's inside, lift up rocks and see what's underneath. Talk to your child's teacher about the class doing a similar activity on school grounds.
- Take children to different environmental experiences; for example, a park, nature center, recycling plant, water treatment plant, an organic farm where you can pick your own vegetables.
- Explore more environmental education activities and ideas for children at the North American Association for Environmental Education, Earth 911, A Child’s Place in the Environment, and Children of the Earth.