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Environmental stewardship involves preserving natural environments through conservation and sustainable practices. Children need to spend time outdoors in order to build a relationship with nature.
Maybe it’s all the early childhood trainings I have attended, but I have repeatedly had to do this specific activity. Everyone closes their eyes and focuses on their favorite childhood memory. This practice is supposed to help you return to your mindset as a child.
Each and every time I have done this activity, I end up imagining one of the my favorite trees. That sounds a little bonkers when I write it down, but even with the chaos of many, many childhood moves, each home I lived in had a favorite tree. What a strange, wild nature-kid I was (insert shrug emoji). I had a perfect climbing tree in the woods at one home, several trees I sat under to read or write at others, and even the quintessential tree with a tire swing during middle school.
Anyway, this post is not about my childhood attachment to trees, but instead an introduction to raising a child to be an environmental steward.
What is an Environmental Steward?
Environmental stewardship involves preserving natural environments through conservation and sustainable practices.
While I was vaguely familiar with environmental stewardship, I never thought much about the concept of it until my honeymoon. Because while we could have gone anywhere in the world, what I wanted was to go to California and hug a giant Sequoia tree. Yes, my love of trees is persistent.
In the Midwest where I live, there is not an abundance of national parks. But during our travels in California, I saw the words “environmental steward” and “environmental stewardship” show up all over the parks we visited. The word was in the brochures, on informational signs, and laced through all historical information. And once I noticed the words “environmental steward,” I started seeing them everywhere.
And as I am reading Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, there is a passage where David Sobel discusses his concept called ecophobia, also known as eco-anxiety. Ecophobia essentially means fear of things associated with the outdoors. The definition also includes the paralysis that can come with overwhelm of environmental destruction.
You know, that mind-numbing feeling that earth is burning and you are powerless to fix it. Sobel then goes on to describe how he believes children develop ecophobia through a dysfunction in the education system.
Children learn about nature and environmental science while sitting in plastic chairs at plastic desks inside clean, temperature-controlled classrooms. Deforestation, water pollution, and animal extinction are simply abstract concepts in books and in lectures. Instead of connecting children to nature through learning experiences, we are actually distancing them from it.
Based on my experience in early childhood education, I do believe Sobel is correct. We teach children how to recycle and how many football fields of rainforest are destroyed each minute. But this does not raise a child to be an environmental steward.
That is because children learn to care about the earth by building a connection to it. We are rarely moved to protect things that don’t feel real to us. Or, if we are moved to act, we complete the minimal amount of effort to absolve our guilt. *Raising my hand here for donating to a campaign instead of raising absolute hell about the important issue.*
And here is the other crucial place where environmental education fails. Children are not taught how social justice issues and environmental issues deeply intertwine. When we do not explicitly teach about the uneven distribution of power in our society, then we are withholding the most important information that children will need to make change. They cannot help fix what they do not understand.
How to Raise an Environmental Steward
Children need to spend time outdoors in order to build a relationship with nature. What we know about child development is that those first 8 years of life are crucial. That is when brains are wiring the most. That is when identities are forming. When I was a kid climbing my favorite tree, I would have moved mountains (not the most eco-friendly metaphor) to stop someone from cutting it down. But I do not even remember learning about the millions of trees being destroyed in the rainforest.
This leads me to believe that this lesson in school was not too emotionally moving and that the adult teaching the lesson was not emotionally moved either. In early childhood, we are also closely watching the adults in our lives for cues on how to care for things we love. If you are a parent or a teacher, you need to start showing children why and how to love nature.
Connect Your Child with Nature
If your child already spends a lot of time playing outdoors, begin intentionally directing their attention to nature. And be purposeful about bringing nature indoors. Let your child see and touch fruits and vegetables before you prep them. Talk about how they grow. Talk about how their pet cat is a mammal and a predator and has tiny versions of lion teeth. Connect their experiences to the weather and to the seasons.
If your child does not spend a lot of time outside, then start intentionally making outdoor play part of your lives. Try these Outdoor Learning Activities or Nature Scavenger Hunts. Essentially, go outside together and let them take the lead on their own exploration.
Children are humans and humans are nature too. If you want to extend your child’s nature play or introduce your child to nature play, I will link my Pinterest Nature Play board. There are people more creative than me sharing their ideas and I am just collecting them.
For more ideas, check out a list of my favorite infant/toddler nature books.
Also, if your child is older than that early childhood age-range I spoke of, it’s not too late. It’s just may take more effort to spark their sense of wonder. If you are on a journey to prioritize nature and the environment in your life, take your older child along on the ride with you. This is a classic case of you can never start too early and it’s never too late.