Every day, the news reminds us just how many gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf, how much money the disaster is costing, and how much damage is being done to fragile ecosystems and wildlife. It's all very important information, so that we may learn from this experience and hopefully prevent such a tragedy from occurring again; however, even as a hardened adult, the daily reminder of the consequences of our demands for fossil fuels can be quite distressing, even for the lucky ones not directly impacted by the sludge and tar balls continuously washing ashore.
If, as adults, we grow weary of hearing such bad news, can you imagine what it's like for a young child who lacks the coping mechanisms that come with maturity? So what do we tell our little ones about such events as these? The age of the child is extremely important when it comes to educating them about the environment and all that threatens it.
Think back to when you were a child. What mattered to you? How did you interact with the outside world? If you were like me, most summer days and daylight hours after school were not spent in front of a video game, in the mall or watching TV. I vividly remember searching for buried pirate treasure, climbing trees to the stars and collecting every feather, leaf, rock or other interesting artifact I discovered around the neighborhood pond, woods, and even those dark and mysterious culverts near the school yard. What mattered was close to home but worlds away in my imagination.
What I don't remember was a well-intentioned grade school teacher telling me that the rainforests were disappearing at a rate I could not actually measure in my little world, and that I was responsible for saving a place I had never even seen — a very heavy burden, placing the weight of the world on 7-year-old shoulders. That being said, we want our children to grow up and make better decisions than we did. Who wouldn't want to have a little Rachel Carson or young Jane Goodall running around the house? But they really didn't grow up any differently than the rest of us. So why have they left such an impression on the natural world? Because their teachers and parents got it right. They simply let them experience, explore, ask questions and go on the same grand adventures we did.
Preschool- and early elementary-aged children need time to discover their world. This is the time when they develop emotional empathy for other living beings, and they need to feel safe. Studies have shown that natural disasters and lessons about lost habitats and the destruction of the natural world for children under the age of 7 are actually counterproductive. Children have a built-in self-preservation technique of distancing themselves from bad things over which they have no control. Instead of growing up caring about their environment, this type of early exposure causes more children to turn their backs on the planet.
The developmental stage from 7 to 11 is about more exploration and manipulation of the natural world. This is the time for collecting cool leaves, building forts and following trails. This group is still too young to be asked to save the mountain gorillas, but it's a good time to learn how to take care of a guinea pig or tend grandfather's garden. The world is still a very small place at this age.
Eleven and beyond is about social action, but it is still best to begin your focus on those things and places that are close to home. Starting a recycling program at school or cleaning up the neighborhood are great ways to learn about community service and ways to make a difference. As children mature, they can expand their horizons to those wild places beyond the local community.
If you are interested in learning more about how to teach your children about the environment, check out David Sobel's Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. He offers up some wonderful, common sense advice based on child development studies that reminds us to be age-appropriate and ease the burden in our conversations and expectations. Remember playtime and laughter are important teaching tools to impart compassion and care for the natural world. As Mr. Sobel puts it, "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it."