Kids and nature: Two things that not so long ago went together, well, naturally. Exploration outdoors defined childhood, which meant endless opportunities to engage with and appreciate the importance of our natural world. In today’s busy parenting world, time spent outdoors is in relentless competition for a child’s attention and time with myriad other things. So how do we adults help the children in our lives respect, protect and love this planet we call home?
As the founder of EarthEcho International, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging youths in environmental leadership, and a soon-to-be first-time father, the opportunity to share my thoughts on the subject is an honor… and a responsibility. While we certainly don’t have all of the answers, after nurturing youth leaders for more than a decade, at EarthEcho we’ve identified three basic approaches that can help young people get engaged and excited about making a positive impact on the planet and their communities.
1. Engage young people authentically and on their terms. Too often we try to make youths the hands and feet of a movement instead of the hearts and minds. Acknowledge that the opinions and voices of our younger citizens matter, no matter their age, and engage them in ways that meet them where they are. Naturalists and nature lovers often eschew technology with the assertion that nature and technology are mutually exclusive, when in fact, they do and must coexist if we are to engage young people in a relevant way. Like it or not, kids live in a hyper-connected world. Our budding environmental leaders can explore the bigger picture with their devices through simple acts like identifying new critters or plants on a nature walk or recording a natural weather phenomenon for citizen-science projects. Helping our kids to see the power of technology as a tool, and not the experience itself, positions them to develop strategies to solve big problems in ways we may have never considered. It also engages them in a language they already understand! Technology is often demonized by many as a distraction, but it can also empower kids in a positive way by sharing their experiences and discoveries and connecting them to the bigger picture with a bigger purpose. Consider 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who inspired hundreds of thousands of students to connect via social media and engage in the recent worldwide Youth Climate Strike.
2. Help young people understand the bigger picture. Connect the dots for a child about how local bodies of water make much of our daily lives possible, from cooking food to brushing our teeth. Or how reusable shopping bags can help save their favorite marine animal. Even the smallest journey into the connectivity of our world can spark exploration and discovery that’s surprising and transformative. A great example of this is plastic drinking straws, so representative of the plastic trash problem. While a child may not have much control over their daily lives, they can say “no thank you” to a single-use plastic straw; they can be empowered to make a difference and influence those around them to do the same. That simple action and sense of purpose are powerful in forming a young person’s view of how they can actively change the world for the better. Case in point, youths are influencing new practices in the food and beverage industry, from restaurants to beverage packaging providers, because they are refusing single-use plastics. When young people believe that everything they do makes a difference in the world, they are a tremendous force for change.
3. Encourage action. I have a simple mantra that guides our work: Awareness does not lead to action, action leads to awareness. Whether it’s a small step in your household, or participation in a global action like EarthEcho’s Youth Leadership Council, empowering kids to take part in solutions fuels a sense of pride and agency that inspire a child for a lifetime. Tapping into your child’s inherent curiosity with activities that are accessible and that deliver tangible results are excellent starting points. Through programs like the EarthEcho Water Challenge we’ve seen how simple actions can create a sense of accomplishment and connection. Each year we get young people outside and on local waterways testing and recording simple data on their community water quality. It’s common to see a group of kids huddled at the side of a creek, in all their muddy glory, lighting up as they see the real-time results of a simple water monitoring test. They are doing science. They are connected. They are making a difference. Action doesn’t have to be complicated or overly involved, it just needs to be part of the equation; that’s how we tap into the inner problem solver in every child.
As parents, mentors and caregivers, it’s important to remember the power of hope, even if sometimes we struggle to find it ourselves. Today, youths understand far more about the state of our planet than we might think, and in my experience, they are determined to create a different relationship with the natural world that focuses on solutions, not excuses. Even faced with daunting challenges, they hope for a better future. As my wife Ashlan and I prepare to welcome our daughter into the world, the young people we interact with everyday are our source of hope. With support, encouragement and guidance, today’s youths are already solving some of our planet’s big problems. We can’t wait for our little girl to join them and see what they accomplish together.
Philippe Cousteau Jr. is co-founder of the youth-leadership nonprofit EarthEcho International.
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