Here are five tips from two adult champions of nature who are truly dedicated to instilling a love of nature in the next generation.
1. Learn how to play in nature.
According to Children First’s forest teacher, Balbir Bhangal, a child needs to learn how to play in the forest first and then they can start to understand it. It is a new environment where children invent their own games. It is a process that takes time. It takes several months attending forest school regularly (for example once per week) to really learn how to play in the forest. “They do not automatically know what to do. Some parents and children think it is boring at first. Games you play at home are very structured and the enjoyment is planned out. For example, when you play Kerplunk and you pull out a straw and nothing falls, and you feel good. If you play Monopoly and you get three houses, you feel happy. Someone preplanned that. The forest is different. It is a new environment where they have to learn to have their own creative ideas and invent games.” says Balbir. “Alongside playing, children also learn to understand that nature should stay natural.”
Indian Creek Nature Center Director of Land Stewardship Jean Wiedenheft says, “One of the things I try to do when I interact with people is to make it fun. It is not whether or not they know the name of each flower, but that they have a sense of discovery, which ignites passion and a sense of excitement. I want them to internalize that something is of value. If there is wonder and fun there, they will keep coming back to it and want to take care of it.”
In order for someone to want to take care of something, they have to be interested in it, love it and understand it. In these interviews, I explored how caring for the environment becomes an intrinsic part of who children are, to the point where they do not even have to give it a second thought; they just do it because that is who they are.
2. Bring a trash bag when you go for a walk.
It is human nature to assume someone else will take care of trash. What if your child started to think, “I will take care of it” and “It is up to me”? Foster this by bringing a bag with you and picking up any trash you see along the way. It is hard to reverse Hardin’s paradigm of the Tragedy of the Commons, in which each individual neglects the well-being of society to pursue their own gain. However, we can do it one step at a time. “When we are out picking up litter on the trail, children learn this is what you do. Part of going on a walk is making it better for others,” says Wiedenheft.
“The first thing I do with my forest groups is to give them gardening gloves and we pick up any rubbish. They begin to learn what belongs and what doesn’t belong,” says Bhangal.
3. Point out how everything is connected.
When Balbir Bhangal teaches in nature, he looks for examples that illustrate how everything is connected. In March, the group saw a stork catch a frog in a pond. It chewed it slowly. After addressing the initial shock for the children, Bhangal explained how everything is connected and that we need to take care of each creature in the environment. It is something they will never forget, as they saw it with their own eyes.
Jean Wiedenheft uses another interesting method. “I like to have the children spit in the creek. Yes, spit. I explain that the spit flows through the Indian Creek to the Cedar Creek to the Iowa River to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico.” It helps the children visualize what happens if they do pollute a river and how their actions today have effects tomorrow. If you do not want to encourage your child to spit, you can also toss a special leaf or stick into the river to explain the same principle.
4. Let obstacles in nature be your child’s teachers.
What the forest does is to offer natural challenges and risks. Children are provided with opportunities to tackle new obstacles they don’t find in a traditional school setting.
“You reach a stream, there is lots of water, and the children have to figure out how they can get across. They can walk or jump or use a stick, but they have to get over the stream by themselves. This gives them the independence to think for themselves and manage their own risks; it gives them more confidence. They have learned to try and try again,” says Bhangal.
“They also begin to manage their emotions a lot better. They want to achieve the task ahead. It is very concrete. It is climbing something, or getting around something they can see. They can look down or look back and say, ‘I have done that.’ It is a whole body and mind experience where you feel good about yourself.”
He believes these positive experiences in nature create something that stays with children throughout their lives. It teaches them the skills to be tomorrow’s leaders.
Make sure your child’s school places a strong emphasis on nature alongside more traditional learning methods.
5. Look up where your food and other products come from.
My brother’s family is mainly vegetarian. When they came to visit me in Switzerland, as hard as we tried, there were several occasions when meat could not be avoided and their son expressed interest in trying it. Instead of not letting him eat meat, they just encouraged their son to check the company that produced the product. How did they treat the animals? What were their environmental policies? After a few minutes on Google we had our answers. Yes, this takes time but it teaches young people to think twice before consuming.
This could inspire them later in life when they need to take business decisions to make sure they are doing business with other companies that are committed to sustainable and ethical environmental business practices. Most pollutants related to climate change come from industry not necessarily from things that we buy as individuals. “The best thing as a consumer is to support those industries that have made a commitment to be carbon neutral. Wanting zero waste is unfair and unrealistic but if people paid more attention to the businesses they do business with, there would be a change.” says Jean Wiedenheft.
Imagine the lawyer who pushed the office to go towards a no-paper policy. Or the engineer who advocated for solar panels on the roof of their building. Or the logistic manager who chooses cargo delivery drones to avoid the pollution caused by delivery vehicles stuck in traffic. Or the chef who implements a recycling program for latex food gloves.
Last year, the Word Economic Forum in Davos launched their own “Champions for Nature” program to disrupt business-as-usual and halt nature loss by 2030. Our best chance is to make responsible choices ourselves and to raise leaders who can demonstrate how businesses can thrive while also reducing their impact on the environment. We need communicators and collaborators who can share knowledge to accelerate green solutions. We need leaders who can think beyond their organizations and transform our current systems. And to think it could all start with a trip to the local woods in Switzerland!
Interviews by Diana Kuebler
Diana is originally from the U.S. and lives in Zurich with her husband and daughter. She enjoys taking photos everywhere she goes and instilling a love of nature in her daughter. She believes every challenge is a new opportunity to grow and create something new. She has joined Jean Wiedenheft in the U.S. and Balbir Bhangal at Children First on their nature outings.
Eco-friendly Tips from Joanna and family
Instead of shower and hand soap in plastic containers, use old-fashioned bars of soap. There are organic brands that are palm oil free and not tested on animals. Soap bars are also cheaper, last longer and cause less waste.
Peter, first year medical student, age 19
Use Sodastream (or similar) instead of plastic bottles.
Buy clothes from sustainable manufacturers, e.g., Patagonia clothes, which are made of organic cotton.
Remember to switch off lights when not needed.
Minimize air travel.
Bicycling is good for the environment and good for your health.
Only buy local and seasonal products.
Significantly reduce meat consumption.
Recycle as much as possible.
Roger, age 18, in his final school year
“Climate change is one of the most pressing and dangerous issues that we currently face and if nothing is done about it, it will only become worse and worse.”
Pay close attention to your food consumption. The agricultural industry is a driving force behind climate change.
Certain crops, such as avocados, require a huge amount of water and are mostly produced in areas where there is not a lot of natural irrigation.
Food waste is a huge factor that leads to climate change. If people would not throw away as much as they do now, one could save a lot of precious resources such as water.
Meat production is extremely bad for the environment due to the amount of methane cows produce.
Avoid plastic bottles – take a water bottle from home and fill it up over the course of the day.
Everyone can adopt new habits that do not have a huge impact on our lives, but these habits do have a huge effect on reducing climate change. Only together can we solve this pressing issue.