How to turn kids green

How to turn kids green – reinstilling the love for nature among chilren

Deborah Churchman

Programmed to the max and nurtured on Nintendo, today’s kids never go outside! Here’s how to turn |em on to the real world.

Last January, 20 kids appeared at hearings before the U.S. Senate. They were worried about global warming, and asked that the United States commit to a 20 percent reduction in C[O.sub.2] emissions by the 2000. These were children (average age about 10) who had set up ecology clubs in their schools, started recycling centers in their cafeterias, talked their towns into car-pooling schemes, lobbied heir state legislatures on utility issues, urged leaders of foreign countries to help endangered species, and spoken before the United nations on the environment.

Welcome to today’s kid.

Across the country, there’s a nearly volcanic growth of elementary-school-based environmental concern, with chapters running into the thousands and membership into the millions. We’re not just talking fun after-school activity here. Kids are some of the major movers behind recent company decisions to sell company decisions to sell dolphin-free tuna and use less Styrofoam. Closer to home (and far more uncomfortable for some of us), today’s kids are hassling their parents to recycle their aluminum cans, quit smoking, and eat lower on the food chain. They beg Mom to stop using pesticides. They whine at Dad to stop buying nonrecyclable materials.

On the surface, it looks like environmentalism is safe in the hands of the next generation. But here’s something the articles on eco-aware kids don’t tell you.

Today’s is don’t go outside.

They don’t know that the moon as phases. They believe that wildlife exists only in Africa and the rainforests, and that all animals – including the prolific eastern gray squirrel nd whitetail deer – are endangered.

Their exposure to wildlife is through field trips to the nature center or the zoo. They’ve never spent a morning watching ants scurrying in and out of an ant hill, never spent a day poking round a creek or a gulley, never followed animal tracks through the woods or the snow, never lain on their backs and watched the stars.

Why not? Lots of reasons. One is that many of these kids are programmed to the max. Between scouts and computer classes and soccer practice and after-school environmental programs, the kids simply don’t have time to go outside and kick stones. “Why do so many of us feel that we must fill every second of our available family time with structured, programmed activities?” asks Richard Louv in Childhoods’s Future, (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1990. $21.45) – a question he answers with everything from competitive parental guilt to the need for adequate day care. For whatever reason, today’s kids simply don’t have what a friend of mine calls” dink time” – time to hang around the yard doing nothing.

Then there’s the Sick Society theory. If your parents encouraged you to get out of their hair by going to the park or the creek or the vacant lot down the street, it was because they believed that the worst thing you’d run into was a stray dog. It’s not a belief you’re likely to share today. True story: We bought our house, among other reasons, because it was down the street from a wonderful bike treail that ran along creek in our suburban neighborhood. Last year, a woman was raped on that very bike trail. My kids aren’t allowed to go there alone.

Okay, so today’s kids don’t go outside anymore. Is this a big deal? They’re already old – oversold, some parents lament – on politically correct environmental ideas. Does it really matter that they can’t tell a spider from an insect, or a squirrel from an endangered species?

Yes, say many of this country’s environmental educators. I’ve spent the past two years interviewing these folks to get a feel for what kind of information kids need to help them appreciate nature. To a person, the educators all bemoan the outdoor ignorance of their students. “Every major environmentalist from John Muir on grew up hanging around wild places,” points out an environmental educator from Connecticut. “They’re in the movement because they grew to love nature, got fascinated by animals and plants, and want wild things to stay wild. Without that kind of foundation, I don’t think environmentalism can run very deep,” she says.

Okay, so you’re not raising a future naturalist. But consider what else your kids are missing. Children need “positive independence and solitude and a sense of wonder,” writes Louv. “In the past, nature has offered this to children, or at least to most of them.” That sense of magic and connectedness – the kind you probably got lying on your back looking at the universe, or learning to climb and reclimb a tree or a mountain – has somehow gotten disconnected. Now, the connections are elsewhere. Louv quotes one fourth grader on this: “I like to play indoors better’ cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

My kids own Nintendo and are just as obsessed by it as everyone else’s. But I ask myself: Is this a good substitute for a beautiful sunset? Can my kids get the same kind of solace and wonder from Super Mario Brothers as they can from a climbing tree? Are they going to be able to figure out how they fit into the universe by using a joystick?

So what does this mean? Do today’s parents need to schedule programmed nature activities into their spare time? Please, no. Parents don’t need another thing to feel guilty about, and your spare time is probably those 30 minutes you get every other Tuesday if you’re lucky. But the truth is that the outdoors is an intrinsically wonderful place, and will sell itself quite easily. The trick is getting your kids, your grandkids, the kids in your neighborhood or scout or church group to take that first plunge into the great outdoors.

Your job isn’t to hit them with another Fine Educational Opportunity, but to turn them on to what a neat world we live in. How? By recreating all the dopey, fun things you did as a kid.

Take them down to the creek to skip rocks – and then show them what’s been hiding under those rocks. Take a walk after the rain and count worms (they’re coming up to get air, since their air holes are clogged with water). Turn on the porch light and watch the insects gather (they’re nuts about ultraviolet light – for some reason scientists haven’t yet figured out). Go to a field (with shoes on) and watch the bees diving into the flowers.

The best thing is to find some semi-wild place nearby where you and the kids can go regularly – an unkempt backyard, the local park, a vacant lot, a nearby creek, even a cemetery (great place for animals). There’s an old Indian saying: It’s better to know one mountain than to climb many. The more you visit and learn about one place, the more your kids can understand the kind of basic interrelationships that happen in all places.

The best places are near water (animals need it and will find it) or at the edge between two habitats – the edge of a woods, perhaps, or the edge of a field (more wildlife hangs out there). Toddle over there every week or so – or every few weeks – just to see what’s going on. This doesn’t have to be during daylight; more animals are out at sunset or after dark anyway:

The object isn’t to correctly identify every bird or beetle; even biologists have trouble doing that. What you’re after is to see what the plants and animals are doing and the ways they interact. Who eats who? How do the animals share water and shelter? You might find more than one species in a burrow, for example, or more than one kind of bird on the wire. Who threatens who? You might see a couple of crows chasing a much-larger hawk, for example, or a hissing beetle scaring away a bird. The key questions are: What is the animal or plant doing, and why do you think it might be doing that?

Some families enjoy keeping a nature journal of these visits, filling it with everything from a simple description of what you saw to pictures, poems, songs, stories, or pressed leaves and flowers. The neat thing about a journal is that it helps you to see patterns. You’ll notice that you’ve seen more birds in certain seasons, for example, or that you see certain kinds of animals only at night. Drawing the organisms makes you really see them: The straight antennae of butterflies and feathery antennae of moths, the number of petals and shapes of leaves on different flowers. Kids are terrific observers and, if encouraged to use their eyes, ears, hands, and even tongues, can start picking out particular bird songs, the textures of different tree barks, the taste of rain and honeysuckle.

Some adults feel more comfortable with – and some kids respond better to – more formal arrangements. The kid who yawns when you say “Let’s go outside” may be intrigued enough to follow you on a moth walk or a trip to gather twigs for making tea. A few ideas for such activities are listed below. And if you feel too ignorant about nature to provide much guidance, suggestions for good nature books are also listed.

But as anyone who’s ever been defeated by a kid on a computer game can tell you, adult ignorance really boosts kid self-esteem. Besides, what you’re trying to teach the kids is not Everything About Nature, but just how much fun it is to be a curious observer of the world around you.

By letting your kid be the pioneer, you may rediscover the thrill of watching ants, or trying to talk to birds, or just looking – really looking – at the world. Who knows? Maybe they’ll make an environmentalist out of you.




1. Find or Build a Secret Place: Every child deserves one of these – a special spot where you’re safe from the world and free to observe its goings-on. Best bets are below large bushes, in trees, between big rocks, or near streams (but be clear about safety rules). If something compelling is going on in your yard – like birds raising their young – and there’s no nearby hiding place, you can set up a tent or throw an old blanket over a couple of stakes. The animals may avoid it for a day or two, but they’ll soon get used to it. Remember: Once your child has claimed the spot, you’re to stay away.

2. Flash for Fireflies: If you live east of the Rocky Mountains, you probably have fireflies in your area. These little insects have a kind of cold-light sex dance, blinking on and off to attract a mate. Using a flashlight, your child can become a firefly imitator. Look for fireflies that are flying upward as they flash (to impress your kids, tell them that these are Photinus pyralis. Boy ones). If you see these, wait until one flashes. Then count off two seconds, and flick your flashlight on and off once toward the (ahem) flasher. This should draw the male like honey. If you don’t happen to have P. pyralis hanging around your yard, try to figure out the pattern of the flashers you do have – and imitate it.

3. Make a Seashore Mobile: These are really gorgeous, even if you have zip talent. First, make a collection – pretty shells, pebbles, horseshoe crab parts, dried seaweed, whatever strikes your fancy. Make sure if it’s washed and dried (or it will smell). Then get a longish, not too heavy piece or two of driftwood, and start attaching these things with glue and string. Hang it outdoors to catch the breeze, or put it in your home to remind you of the beach in the months ahead.


1. Go on a Moth Walk. Here’s a surefire way to get kids outside at night in September. In a blender, mix up a goopy brew of squishy fruit, stale beer or wine (or fruit juice that’s been hanging around too long), and sweetener (honey, sugar, or molasses). The proportions aren’t that important – you’re aiming for something the consistency of thick paint. Then take a paint brush and a child or two, and go outside at sunset. Slap some of this goo on at least a half-dozen surfaces – trees are best, but any unpainted and untreated wood will do. Come back when it’s really dark, and take a look at what you lured. You’ll usually find a few moths, along with several dozen ants, earwigs, and other insects.

2. Hunt for Nests: When leaves fall from trees, you can get a good look at what else has been there. Birds abandon their nests in the fall, and so do wasps (but be careful to wait until after a good freeze or two before testing that theory). Many types of squirrels start building enormous nests in the fall. They’re those things you see made of leaves and sticks at the crotch of a tree or inside a tree hole. If you find squirrel nests, keep track of them – squirrels usually have their young in the winter.

3. Keep Track of Bird Migrations: You may need to do a little research for this one. Call your local nature center, Audubon Society, or the zoology department at a local university, and talk to someone about what, when, and where you’re likely to see migrating birds. If you’re lucky enough to live along one of the regular flyways, you may see great flocks of geese flowing across the face of the moon some night or frenetically feeding in a meadow some morning.


1. Catch a Snowflake: If it snows in your area, stick a sheet of black construction paper in the freezer for a few minutes, and find a magnifying glass. Then, when the paper is good and cold, go outside and catch a few flakes. The paper will keep them from melting immediately so you can get a good, long look at these lacy formations. (Hint: If you’re out of construction paper, stay outside a little while and then catch snowflakes on your sleeve to study.)

2. Decorate a Tree for the Animals: You can string popcorn and berries, roll pinecones in peanut butter and seeds, and hang suet and rolls for all sorts of animals.

3. Make Birch Tea: The crushed twigs of birch, or leaves from wintergreens or checkerberries, make a soothing tea. Just wash them off, break them up, and steep them for about five minutes (great with honey). And collecting these things means getting your kids outdoors – look around the trees for hibernating insects, galls, or the burrows of animals.


1. Go on a Frog Hunt: This starts out as Mark-Twain-hokey and ends up being a lot tougher than you’d think. First you need to find them – look in any area with calm, dear water in the early spring. Eggs are the easiest to “catch” – and raise, if you’ve got a big, empty aquarium (just be sure to bring back a big bucket of the pond water). Ditto to tadpoles. Frogs are a lot trickier. Their eyes are programmed to register any movement of a – “large thing,” like a kid, as bad – and hop away. So you’ve got to sneak up very, very carefully, and then nab them with a large kitchen strainer or an aquarium net. Once you’ve looked your catch over carefully – or raised your tadpoles -please put them back. Wild things belong in the wild.

2. Survey Slugs: Grab a spatula, a flat glass dish, and a piece of lettuce, and go outside on a cool evening in search of slugs. Once you’ve found one, use the spatula to gently lift it into the dish. It will probably curl up for several minutes, and then start crawling. You can see the slime trail it lays down and flows along – especially if you watch it from underneath. Try turning the dish – the slug can usually hang on, even upside down. Then stick the lettuce leaf into the dish and watch that mouth go.

3. Help a Nest Here’s a bird feeder with a twist. When the birds start nesting in your area, put out lots of nesting materials – pieces of yarn or string, human hairs from your hairbrush, narrow strips of cloth. The best places to leave this staff are near the nest-under-construction or a nearby clothesline. Tell the kids their hair will make a soft bed for a new baby bird. AF

Green Reading for Kids

There are umpteen nature books for kids on the market these days, many of them bad. The Golden Guides are probably still the best investment you could make for your kids – they’re simple, small, easy to carry, and cover a wide range of common plants, animals, and rocks. Nearly anything by Jim Arnosky – especially his Secrets of a Wildlife Watcher (Beech Tree Edition, Fairfield, NJ, 1991,$15) makes a good read. And for some nifty ideas for outdoor explorations, check out the following: * Hickman, Pamela M., Bug Wise, Addison Wesley, Reading, MA, 1990, $8.95.

Leslie, Clare Walker, Nature All Year Long, Greenwillow Books, Fairfield, NJ, 1991,$16.95. * Milord, Susan, The Kids’ Nature Book, Williamson Publishing, Charlotte, VT, 1989, $12.95. * Swanson, Diane, A Toothy Tongue and One Long Foot: Nature Activities for Children, Whitecap Books Ltd., North Vancouver, British Columbia, 1992, $9.95 (priced in Canadian dollars).

COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group