Part of being a dedicated environmentalist is educating others on the importance of protecting the planet. Encouraging kids and teaching them about environmentalism is especially important if we want them to take action and consider environmentally focused careers.
But how, exactly, can we teach our kids to care about the environment? Social scientists have examined the issue, and their research indicates that worst-case scenarios and stories of doom and gloom don’t motivate adults or children to care about protecting the earth. Instead, it’s a personal connection with nature that can motivate people to act on behalf of the planet. And when that connection is established in childhood, people often develop a lifelong love of nature and the outdoors.
Encourage Outdoor Activities
One of the easiest ways to help kids develop a personal connection with nature is to encourage them to participate in outdoor activities. Today’s kids are often cooped up in school for several hours a day, and many school districts have reduced the time students spend in recess, physical education classes, and other activities that bring them outside.
Lack of outdoor time leads to what researcher Richard Louv terms as “nature deficit disorder,” a phenomenon that especially plagues children who live in large cities with few outdoor spaces. Louv believes that this lack of green space has an adverse impact on children’s health and well-being, and will ultimately affect their level of concern for the environment as they grow older.
Other researchers and scientists have also recognized how time outside affects children’s appreciation for the natural world. In one study, researchers looked at 9- and 10-year olds and 11- to 13-year olds in terms of their environmental connections. Students were observed for four days in an environmental education program that focused on water, with activities such as walking through a stream and catching and returning animals back into the water.
At the conclusion of the study, the researchers compared the children who participated in the program against those who did not. They discovered that the participants had developed stronger connections to nature—although only the younger group of children showed the same stronger level of connection a month later. The results suggested that immersive environmental education programs should focus on younger students.
Get Kids Involved in Environmental Programs
Although some schools in the US may teach students about environmental issues, many more don’t, so if this is a priority for parents, it’s up to them to find alternative ways to get their kids engaged. One way to accomplish this is to find a program that pairs children with older mentors who can share their knowledge, helping kids develop a deep understanding of the environment and what threatens it.
Non-school programs can be a great way for kids and teens to learn about nature and ecology. One study, commissioned by the Nature Conservancy and funded by the Rhodebeck Charitable Trust and the Toyota USA Foundation, examined Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF), an internship program for students attending environmentally focused high schools. LEAF emphasizes environmental careers, and participants are paired with environmentalists and conservation scientists to further their learning.
The results of the study indicated that those who finish the LEAF program had a higher overall understanding of environmental issues. For example, LEAF participants were much more likely to volunteer in environmental campaigns, support environmental groups, and speak up about actions and policies that harmed the environment. In addition, LEAF participants spent more time outdoors than those who didn’t participate in the program, choosing outdoor activities in place of indoor recreational activities such as playing video games or watching TV. LEAF alumni also had a 26 percent higher rate of college enrollment than their peers and higher overall high school graduation rates.
Another way to get young people to consider environmental careers is to enroll them in an environmentally-focused school. So-called “green” schools go further than tree planting and recycling, and also provide in-depth lessons on topics like climate change and sustainability. In addition, these schools often encourage students to get involved in local environmental causes, like cleaning up a contaminated industrial site or waterway.
Students at environmentally focused high schools and colleges have a variety of learning opportunities, including research programs and lessons that emphasize real-world environmental problem-solving. Those attending environmentally focused colleges and universities often have the opportunity to work closely with environmental experts and conduct exciting, meaningful research in the field.
Just Go Outside
For parents who want to encourage their children to pursue environmental careers, a structured program is not always necessary in order to help kids become closer with nature. Simply spending more time with your child outdoors is a great way to start, and you probably don’t have to travel far to do this. From your backyard to neighborhood parks to campgrounds in your region, there are a variety of ways to increase the amount of time your child spends in nature. Parents may also find it beneficial to collaborate with local environmental organizations and participate in events like beach and creek clean-ups. Doing these things cost very little, if anything, but they providing invaluable benefits for kids who may want to pursue environmental careers later on.