Teaching Kids to Care for the Environment
From destinations in your own backyard to favorite vacation spots, there are numerous ways to teach children to be good stewards of the planet.
Somewhere between teaching kids to do their chores, reminding them to get their homework done, and checking off life’s milestones, there is also a need to show them how to be good stewards of our one and only planet Earth. The question is, how do busy parents do this without infusing a lot of fear about the planet’s finite resources disappearing?
“We’re born with it,” says David Lucas, project lead and refuge manager at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, who also works with Generation Wild. “Consider your own biases, don’t be afraid, explore with them, experiment, and nurture that little seed inside of them and you will have a future conservationist.”
Research agrees with Mr. Lucas. A study from Cornell University found that “the more time a child under age 11 spent outdoors, the more likely he or she was to care about the environment as an adult.” It’s important to distinguish between a conservationist and an environmentalist: a conservationist sees the environment—which encompasses ecosystems, land, wildlife–as something that humans use that needs to be preserved for others to enjoy; an environmentalist wants the environment to be saved and protected from human misuse.
In 2015, Great Outdoors Colorado launched Generation Wild to connect youth to the outdoors.
“GOCO is on a mission to protect and enhance Colorado’s parks, trails, rivers, wildlife, and open spaces,” said GOCO Executive Director Jackie Miller. “We and partners across the state know that people who are connected to the outdoors appreciate it and will care for it into the future. We’ve got the opportunity to create the next generation of outdoor recreators and conservationists, all while making kids happier and healthier as we go.”
Beyond the 12 Generation Wild communities in Colorado and the estimated 40,000 children impacted, there are opportunities for families to learn and educate their kids when traveling, too.
During the peak of the pandemic, there was an uptick in domestic travel, which meant that places like Yellowstone National Park, saw more visitors from urban areas who lacked a familiarity with the outdoors.
“There are so many people of all ages that don’t have an opportunity to spend much time in an area that is wild like Yellowstone,” says Rick Hoeninghausen, Director of Sales and Marketing at Xanterra Parks & Resorts in Yellowstone. “There’s just a lack of knowledge and we can teach them how to respect it and have value for it.”
Some of this education is for safety, he says, so that people don’t approach wildlife for a photo or try to swim in a steaming hot geyser pool. Beyond the basic safety lessons though are a variety of programs that Hoeninghausen recommends for families to consider:
- The National Park Service’s Junior Ranger, Young Scientist, and Expedition Yellowstone programs each appeal to different age groups and levels of commitment. The Junior Ranger program is found in almost all national parks and is geared towards kids ages five to 13 and there is no cost; Yellowstone’s Young Scientist program includes purchase of a self-guiding booklet and was designed for three different age groups that span ages five to 14 and up; Expedition Yellowstone is a four to five-day curriculum-based hands-on residential program for 4th through 8th graders and is fee based.
- The Buffalo Bill Center for the West is more than a museum tour with summer programs for kids ages five to 15. Youth can take an outdoor art class, learn about raptors, and explore their senses with nature experiences.
- Red Canyon Wild Mustang Tour is for families and those who aren’t ready to find themselves on a trail with a bear, elk, moose, or even a bison in Yellowstone National Park. “Growing a conservationist starts with being comfortable and familiar in the area,” says Hoeninghausen. “When you see horses on a wide open landscape, it’s like seeing elk in the park and their intact ecosystem.”
Even a trip to Hawaii can encompass education about fragile resources and you can participate in planting a tree seedling. “Rooted in Aloha” is a partnership between the Fairmont Kea Lani and Skyline Conservation that has created opportunities for locals and tourists to be part of a reforestation program.
“Everyone who visits and supports the Pōhakuokalā Gulch Community Restoration project site gets an opportunity to connect with an ancient ecosystem that has been long lost, but not forgotten,” explains Joe Imhoff, Program Manager for Skyline Conservation. “It is our hope people from all over the world who connect with this project understand the magnitude of restoring a thriving native ecosystem.”
Today, visitors can zip line through a forest where 20 years ago there was only one native Koa tree and now there are thousands of trees that are providing a home to a rare Hawaiian forest bird.
The lessons families learn in Maui are ones that can be replicated back at home, wherever that may be, according to Imhoff. For a “holistic mindset for ecological restoration,” he suggests:
- Find a landscape that could benefit from ecological restoration (planting native plants.)
- Find a community who can gather and support this process by donating money and volunteer time.
- Find a source for native plants appropriate for the localized landscape.
- Engage children in every step of this process.
This is similar to what David Lucas at the Rocky Mountain National Wildlife Refuge is doing, as he focuses on a diverse population of urban youth.
“We are connecting future generations of youth to nature in various ways, events, and activities through youth leadership and future careers,” says Lucas, noting that the Arsenal just hired their first Spanish-English bilingual rangers.
He recommends listening to what kids want to do when they are outdoors so that they remain engaged and committed. He says that when the Arsenal first became a Generation Wild hub, kids said they wanted American Ninja Warrior and archery. So, that archery program is very popular (no ninja warriors yet)!
“The kids come out with facilitated programs to learn safety, use tools, or check out tools to use,” he says. “We have additional opportunities to get the whole family outside, like fishing.”
When it comes to teaching families about conservation, Lucas says the biggest challenge is people don’t recognize public lands are theirs. “These are your lands, your refuge, we want you to connect with nature,” he says. “This is your space to take care of, to be a steward, and if these kids don’t understand that these lands are theirs, then conservation ends.”
He goes so far as to say, “We want them to come take our jobs, or at least be a conservationist in whatever career they take.”
Those city kids who come to the Arsenal have a chance to see prairie dogs, go fishing, hear and see a variety of birds, including bald eagles, watch bison roam the plains, and more. Lucas observes the youngest ones as they gain a basic understanding of natural processes—maybe through artistic expression after time spent outdoors—and then has seen many of the program graduates go into teaching and youth mentorship to pass on what they have learned.
For families who are aiming to teach a little a la carte conservation on weekend hikes or even at the local park, Lucas cautions parents who want to force their kids to choose between technology and nature. “Don’t strip them of their electronics when they’re outdoors because maybe that ‘Tweetsnap’ can help them make an important connection,” he says. “We can be conservationists in our own backyard”
How to Raise a Conservationist:
- Start early and get little kids outside—even if you didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors yourself as a kid. State parks in Colorado, such as Roxborough State Park, have visitor centers with displays and rangers to speak with, as well as educational signage along the trails.
- Sign up for programs through national parks, Generation Wild, and other organizations, including during vacations, to learn more about the forests, habitats, animals, bugs, and waterways, to show your kids how public lands are everyone’s shared responsibility.
- Practice stewardship near home by cleaning up after yourself and your pets outside, don’t come into contact with wildlife, take only pictures and leave flowers and plants where they are growing, and don’t wander beyond human-designated natural areas that need protection.
- If your kids want to bring their smartphone into the outdoors, find a way to integrate their device with this experience, maybe by using an app to identify plants or taking photographs to turn into sketches later.