A green legacy: Here's how to raise the next generation of environmentalists

Debbie LaPlaca
It's important to inspire a new generation of environmental stewards.

In today’s climate, it’s hard to miss environmental news about the human impact on our planet. And while the alerts on water and soil quality, deforestation, and loaded landfills seem to have taken a back seat to the threat of climate change, the burden of each, and more, will be passed to our children.

So how do parents, educators and mentors raise the next generation of environmentalists?

Raising the stewards of our shared ecological future needn’t be a chore. Whether it’s in your backyard or a local park, environmental awareness begins outdoors.

Getting children involved in environmental issues begins by getting outdoors and letting them explore the nature around them.

“With the very young kids, just go outside with them. Take them to a place where they can safely explore,” said Martha Gach, the Worcester-based Education Manager and Conservation Coordinator for Mass Audubon. “Let your toddler lead the way and let them show you what they are interested in. Teach them how to look at things, how to explore, and how to protect creatures, and you’ll have a newfound environmentalist.”

MassAudubon, founded in 1896, protects more than 38,000 acres and hosts more than a half million visitors at its wildlife sanctuaries and nature centers each year. It also offers thousands of programs to more than 225,000 kids and adults annually.

“We need to create earth stewards. None of us are going to be around forever and we need to develop the next generation,” Gach said. “It’s important for parents to encourage their children toward those outdoor experiences that will help them form ties to the environment.”

In addition to raising the keepers of our long-term environmental goals, Gach spoke of the many more immediate benefits to children’s health and wellbeing.

“When you’re outside pursuing a healthy and active lifestyle, you’re developing creativity, imagination, as well as developing problem solving and risk management,” she said. “You’re developing a child’s curiosity and you’re also teaching them to be adaptive and resilient.”

Elementary school aged children in the Worcester Public Schools are introduced to an environmental curriculum from the start.

Luke Robert is the Principal at May Street Elementary School, which educates children from kindergarten through Grade 6.

He shot and shared a series of videos for his students titled, “Mr. Robert’s Naturehood.”

“When the pandemic started, I thought: what can I do to connect the kids to nature? I started going on hikes in areas where our kids live. All of a sudden there was an explosion of people using trails everywhere, so I started doing a series on birds and flowers,” Robert said.

When it comes to raising kids environmental awareness, elementary school principal Luke Robert encourages parents to lead by example.  “I think part of it is just showing how you respect the environment by recycling where you can, and getting out on the trails."

He posted the video to the school’s Facebook page and in response, students began posting selfies of themselves out in nature.

“Being in the inner city, these kids often don’t associate their world with nature,” he said. “I tell them nature is all around you, it’s in your yard, it’s a flower, or a bird at a feeder, a hawk circling above.”

As for advice to parents, Robert said, “I think part of it is just showing how you respect the environment by recycling where you can, and getting out on the trails. We’ve got a lot of great local resources that people don’t even know about.”

For those with middle schoolers, we have Erin Anderson, a Grade 5 math and science teacher at Charlton Middle School, who exposes her students to the human impact on water, soil and air.

Her students are required to do research in their community and develop concepts for reducing our impact on those resources, such as designing their own composter.

Anderson’s advice to parents with this age group is to involve them in local Earth Day cleanups.

"We need to create earth stewards," said Martha Gach, the Worcester-based Education Manager and Conservation Coordinator for Mass Audubon. "None of us are going to be around forever and we need to develop the next generation."

“If you act locally, it affects everything globally, it all adds up,” she said. “Encourage them to do things at home or at a local level. Even if done on a small scale, it affects the whole system.”

Anderson’s desire for developing environmentally active citizens has spilled out of the classroom and into the community.

Working with Charlton officials, she acquired a grant that was used in 2009 to turn the rural community’s modest Earth Day cleanup into a full-blown festival on the Town Common.

It has grown each year since.

That is until COVID-19 restrictions cancelled the festival booths, games, prizes, and shows last year and will do so again this year.

Have a high schooler?

Benjamin Estabrooks teaches advanced environmental science to students of 10 central Massachusetts towns at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School in Charlton.

His advice for engaging your teens in environmental concerns is to include them in the decision making on household choices, such as rubbish disposal, clean food, and energy.

Gach, Robert, Anderson, and Estabrooks agree that environmental losses and gains have been made during the pandemic and it’s important to find age-appropriate ways to teach children the differences.

On the positive side, COVID has helped the environment by momentarily decreasing pollution because people are driving less, and factories were shut down for a while, Gach said.

It has also benefited Mass Audubon’s work as nothing heightens an appreciation for the outdoors as much as being outdoors.

“With more people getting outside where it’s safer from the virus, they are seeing how important those outside spaces are,” Gach said. “Not just to drive someplace an hour away but to have that space in your community; close by. People are seeing that it’s important to protect those spaces.”

Yet, Gach said the impact of COVID has caused harm in that some of the outdoor spaces are being “loved to death.” Further, the pandemic has cut back Mass Audubon’s work with volunteer groups, including the cancellation of its Earth Day cleanup last year.

Robert agreed with Gach’s assessment.

“I think COVID hurt based on the trash issues,” he said. “I think it’s helped in that people aren’t traveling as much, there are less cars on the road, people are getting outside more and understanding that there are all these outdoor venues. I think a lot of people rediscovered the outdoors.”

No matter where you live in the state, there are Mass Audubon programs for children of all ages: preschool stories hours, toddler walks, parent-child programs, and drop off programs starting after age 3.

Parents seeking structured activities for their children will find a series of videos and resources at www.massaudubon.org to guide and inspire, such snow sculptures for the birds, iceberg river races, and for the weather-induced indoor days - making pinecone bird feeders

For more on “Mr. Robert’s Naturehood,” visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zc5-bXJuDLU