Little children, who spend their days climbing trees and splashing in puddles, who adore woodland creatures and wallow in dirt, often become, without their even realizing it, staunch environmentalists. For though they may not grasp the magnitude of pollution and deforestation, and while they might not even know what the polar ice caps are, they grasp, with all of the ferocity of scorned siblings, the fundamental unfairness of somebody messing with their trees, with their puddles, with their creatures, with their dirt. They understand, perhaps better than their elders, that what's theirs is not replaceable, that what's theirs is worth holding on to and protecting, that what's theirs shouldn't just be given away. It's a self-centered approach to environmentalism, maybe, but there's no arguing with the logic behind their wanting to take care of their own stuff. Really, what could be more logical?
And because small children's ideas about environmental protection, much like their ideas about everything, frankly, generally boil down to "mine, mine, mine," it's important to give them meaningful and creative opportunities to get hands-on with the natural world. Sure, you can teach them to reduce, reuse and recycle, but those three Rs, outside of any other context, are totally abstract concepts for children; kids need to see, smell, hear, feel and taste what's at stake if they choose to waste. Naturalists by nature, kids require little more than a good idea (and maybe a costume) to get to work at making the earth a better place. Want to model good environmental habits for your children? Want to get them to go more green? Following are five easy, fun and inexpensive ways to get the whole family involved in bettering the planet.
1. Get into nature
The simplest way to motivate kids to take care of the earth is to give them regular chances to experience it. Trips to the woods and to the ocean and to the mountains are more than just fun and diverting; they're also reminders of how important it is to protect these beautiful, vulnerable treasures. And while camping adventures and long hikes are fantastic, you don't need to travel far from home to delve into nature. An exploration of your local park, or even a study of the trees in your backyard, can be all it takes to get your kids excited about preserving the world around them.
2. Plant a garden
Getting out into nature is great, it's true, but so is bringing nature into your own backyard. Fill your garden with flowers, with herbs, with yummy vegetables; no matter what you and your children grow, you'll be delighted to watch your seedlings flourish and beautify your surroundings. Steer clear of invasive species -- you can find official lists of "bad plants" here -- and concentrate, instead, on native plants that will prosper in your yard and not threaten the ecosystem. And enjoy the abundance of wildlife -- the birds, the butterflies, the bees and other critters -- that will, in short order, make your garden their home.
3. Buy from local farmers.
While it's wonderful to grow your own produce, there are some vegetables, like corn, that are tough to grow on a small plot of land. And when you can't grow it yourself, and when you don't want to buy it from the grocery store, it's time to seek out the farmers' markets, the independent farm stands and the community-supported agriculture programs. The produce is fresher when you buy it from local farmers, and often, particularly when you buy from farmers' markets, you can even ask the farmer how your food was grown. Get to know the best places in your area to buy farm-fresh produce and support them as frequently as you can. And if your area offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, consider getting involved. Typically, for a few hundred dollars a season, you can get all of the farm-fresh produce you can handle, much of which, depending on your CSA, may very well be organic. Showing your children that their food comes from farms, and, more to the point, from somebody's soil, will remind them, in a way that they can understand, why taking care of the earth is essential.
Businesses and civic organizations, as everyone knows from seeing those signs along the highways, often adopt thoroughfares in their neighborhoods, with the promise of keeping them clean. But you don't need to belong to a big organization to spruce up your surroundings; all it takes is a commitment -- and some garbage bags -- to make that trash a thing of the past. Skip the roads and highways -- those places are better left to the grown-ups who are more skilled at avoiding traffic -- and stick to other well traveled spots, like beaches, parks and playgrounds. Some children may resent cleaning up others' litter, but you can assure them, if they're feeling bitter, that their efforts really do make a difference, and celebrate, once the work is finished, just how great that difference is.
5. Learn about (and learn from) environmental disasters
Environmental disasters, while tragic and horrifying, can be excellent reminders of why taking care of the planet is a responsibility that belongs to us all. Read about oil spills and air pollution, talk about the short- and long-term effects of these disasters, and think about what you and your kids can do to prevent further damage to the environment. And if learning about deforestation and global warming leaves you discouraged and depressed, put your plans for a healthier planet into action: Choose an issue that's especially important to you and to your children, and do something tangible to make a change. Write your congressperson; make posters; raise and donate money to the cause. Your children, who are undoubtedly experts on the topic of fairness, will be more than happy to fight for what's right, so pick up your chin, your pen, your shovel and your wallet, and get out there and save the world.
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