Teaching Sustainability to Children
The very definition of sustainability compels us to live within the means of the planet so that future generations can also meet their needs.
Many global trends are escalating towards disaster. In the face of looming climate change and depleting oil reserves, just to name two of them, the only certainty we can have about the approaching future is that the lifestyle we have taken for granted in the west cannot be sustained for much longer.
How well are we preparing children for this future?
Families downshifting to sustainable living are making a proactive and effective response to these issues.
Even more importantly, walking the talk of sustainable living offers the ONLY effective opportunity for their children to learn and practice skills that may prove to be crucial to their very survival.
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Why Not Leave it to Schools?
Environment education in schools along with sensationalist media have ensured that children today are certainly aware of the dire situation the world is in, and the dismal predictions of the kind of world they will inherit from us as adults.
However, thorough awareness of environmental issues is not proving to be adequate preparation for this future.
In Finland, for example, environmental education is comprehensively covered in the education system.
However, one study of Finnish kids found that while general awareness of and empathy with environmental problems was high, their understanding of the issues was poor, and more importantly, most did not recognize personal actions they could take to help alleviate them.
Basically the result of all this education has been kids that feel overwhelmed, powerless and unmotivated to act. Most anticipated a bleak future while harboring passive and futile hopes that technology would somehow solve these complex issues in time.
Homeschooling is a great alternative. For guidance on homeschooling teens click here.
Why Not Leave it to the Media?
Our kids are regularly bombarded with graphic media reports of environmental disasters.
Research has shown that these portrayals stick most in their minds when visioning the future leading them to generally pessimistic expectations for the environment and humankind.
Media exposed children form the view that neither adults nor governments are responding strongly enough to help the environment, and as a consequence are losing hope for the future.
The Toll on Our Kids
To keep their sanity in the light of all this bad news some kids focus on gratifying their senses and living for today.
Many act out their feelings of hopelessness, impotence and frustration, as reflected by escalating youth violence. Others elect to bail out altogether. In recent years adolescent suicides have gone up 300% and major depression is increasing globally.
Rather than more Armageddon scenarios, what children really need are constructive opportunities to learn simple, sustainable living skills hands-on. Such skills will be essential to equip children to thrive in the times ahead. And isn’t that what education should be about?
Introducing the Concept of Sustainability to Children
The best way to introduce the concept of sustainability to children is to live it!
Studies have shown that children rely primarily on their parents to teach them strategies to respond effectively to external events (Spinrad, Losoya, Eisenberg and Fabes, 1999).
Their views thus reflect those of their parents, so if adults act as if they have little control over the future, then children’s feelings of disempowerment will be multiplied (Hicks, 1996).
Simple living on farms or in backyards is the best education you can provide for your children and empower them to act positively for their future.
Encourage your children to participate in all aspects of your downshifting experience. This opens their minds to viable alternatives to hopelessness and consumerism.
Involve Your Kids in All Your Activities
Research shows that the single issue that kids are most concerned about is the quality of their family relationships.
Your decision to downshift to a simpler life will free up the low stress time you need to strengthen communication and cooperation in the family. Use the time to involve kids in your downshifting experience.
Making seed balls for example, is a simple and powerful way to teach kids hands-on skills for sustainable living. Check out the second video on that page to see kids in action doing just that.
Model Basic or Simple Living
Inequitable consumption by the first world is the root cause of most of the global issues we face – from terrorism to global warming and peak oil. Limiting consumption is thus the most effective way any of us can act to both alleviate global problems and prepare for their possible consequences.
Turn off the television!
And demonstrating by simple living that your own priorities don’t revolve around consumption needs to be augmented by limiting your child’s exposure to marketing messages on television.
Mass marketing propaganda (advertising) encourages us to be preoccupied with accumulating material things and even define our worth by what we own. The danger is that as we are brainwashed into identifying with inanimate things, our sensitivity to and feeling of relationship with each other and the living systems that sustain us diminishes (international study by Louis Harris and Associates).
Expose children to other cultures
Exposing kids to other cultures is important for developing their empathy and feelings of connection with our shared humanity. If you are living on a small farm you might think your options for achieving this are limited. Well, it’s not so! You can join the WWOOF network (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) and host visitors from all over the world. The deal is they work for you and you supply board for them for as long or as short a stay as you both think fit. It costs very little and the benefits are considerable.
Encourage Holistic Thinking
Environmental education recognizes that the complex threats we face today cannot be solved by the linear, specialized, segmented thinking that got us into this mess! It stresses the value of cultivating broad competence to act constructively and proactively in a wide range of areas (Hicks and Holden, 1995). What is needed are skills in systems thinking and problem solving.
Small farms are intricate systems. What could be a better setting to foster holistic, lateral, multidisciplinary education that the development of a self sufficient Permaculture property?
Foster Environmental Sensitivity
Kids who grow up on farms or bio-diverse backyards teeming with plants and critters are well placed to develop an emotional bond with the environment.
Indeed, outdoor activities have been shown to foster environmental sensitivity and a feeling of connection to nature.
One study (Irmeli Palmburg, 1996) found that students who had spent time in activities outdoors in a natural setting developed a much stronger empathic relationship to nature than those who hadn’t.
And its well known that kids who are brought up in close positive contact with animals are naturally more connected to other living creatures. So consider volunteering together at a wildlife caring group or pet shelter, or keeping hens, earthworms, frogs or other pets.
Expose Kids to Ecological Relationships
When children are exposed to functioning Permaculture systems – alive with animals, plants and nature – they easily develop an appreciation for the interconnectedness of life and how they fit in the web of ecological relationships.
Even a high rise apartment can use a small worm farm to recycle its green and organic wastes, and use the worm castings to grow vegetables, fruit and herbs on the balcony.
Make Practical Use of Ecological Principles
Permaculture is a design science for sustainability based on ecological principles. Learn Permaculture yourself, and involve your kids in application of your knowledge in the design and establishment of your self sufficiency system to support your simple lifestyle.
Specific Permaculture projects to involve kids in could include any sustainable living activity contributing to the development of your small farm or backyard, for example: making a solar oven (demonstrating principles of capturing and using energy), planting fodder systems for poultry, bees or livestock, growing seedlings, raising ducks.
Air Environmental Issues Sparingly
There is little value in adding to the burden children already carry of information about the plethora of environmental and societal issues that are superfluous to their day-to-day lives. In fact, the overload of bad news from far away places is considered by some a threat to kids’ socio-emotional development (Prout, 2005).
So keep the focus of concerns oriented to local and family issues.
For example, you could make and use green cleaning products, while explaining to kids that you have made the switch from the chemical nasties to both safeguard you own health and that of the planet.
Involve Kids in Active Citizenship
Australian surveys (e.g. Aulich, 1991; Hutchinson, 1992, 1993) have revealed that our children see politicians as dishonest and non-responsive to important issues, and are understandably very cynical about the value of voting. These findings point to a major need to involve kids in participating in active citizenship.
Today children are bombarded with information about global issues, most not only outside their direct experience but also difficult for them to understand or relate to.
Parents can restore focus and empowerment to kids by fostering skills of democratic participation that concentrate on local issues of direct relevance within their effective sphere of influence.
The Best Way to Teach Sustainability is to Live It!!!
Sustainable living and self sufficiency engenders consciousness in children that they are part of a life system that supports them.
It offers a wide range of opportunities for learning practical skills that bolster our children’s abilities to respond to world issues and survive their possible consequences… from using environmentally friendly products to recycling old clothes, from worm farming to raising hens.
Walking the talk of sustainable living allows our children to encounter themselves as having co-influence and responsibility in real and relevant situations, and empowers them to not only meet the future, but contribute to its shaping.