By: Justin Young, Program Manager, RiverLink
I believe that many environmentalists are deterring children from engaging with nature. Most of us in WNC have a passion for showing our kids the beauty of their natural surroundings. We want them to appreciate the peace and serenity that nature provides and the way that we as humans rely on the environment. Unfortunately, with all of the problems facing the planet it can be hard to focus on what made nature so special when we were kids. It’s difficult for teachers, parents and the general public to talk about environmental concepts without bringing up forces that are putting them at risk. That’s understandable since we want our children to be prepared for the world they’ll inherit; however, because of this we often rob our kids of the opportunity to connect with nature and form a love of the Earth.
When I think about what motivated me to get involved with the conservation field, I’m taken back to places like the forest and stream by my Grandparents cabin in West Jefferson. Growing up I could explore this place with complete freedom and curiosity, never having to worry about what external factors were impacting it. That’s what made it so special, and established it as a driving force for my desire to protect places just like it. If I didn’t have experiences like this I don’t think I’d care as much about conservation as I do. Unfortunately I see fewer and fewer children having opportunities like these. Instead they’re exposed to environmental topics like deforestation, climate change and others that illustrate a crumbling world.
Initiating children to environmental topics with large scale problems that are often too abstract and beyond their understanding or control, can cause them to shut down to the topic entirely. Consequently we’re seeing more kids that are disconnected from the environment around them, and instead painfully aware of endangered species and at risk ecosystems around the world. This unbalanced experience with nature has created what David Sobel calls Ecophobia. He defines this as “A fear of ecological problems and the natural world. Fear of oil spills, rainforest destruction, whale hunting… Fear of just being outside”. Mindsets like these are not what I’d like to see in our children, and are not effective at fostering future stewards of our planet.
Luckily through my work with RiverLink and our Watershed Education Program, I see many educators that are working towards a solution. Whether its programs with Asheville Greenworks, Warren Wilson College, Muddy Sneakers or many other organizations in our region, I’m seeing a shift in how we handle environmental education. As formal and informal teachers we have realized that a simple focus on getting kids outdoors and providing them chances to explore, ask questions, and inspect their natural surroundings can lead to big changes in their thinking. Students that have these opportunities are able to build relationships with local ecosystems based on a hands on understanding of how they work and positive experiences. As a result I’ve seen students that show an increased interest, comprehension, and respect for nature. They are also cultivating the building blocks for a more comprehensive understanding of environmental issues. It’s only once this foundation has been established that we can begin to meaningfully discuss environmental problems and ways we can all help.
We are so lucky to live in a place with such beautiful natural resources. It makes sense that we want to do everything we can to protect places like this, and that often includes sharing the environmental burden with our children. However, if we want our kids to thoughtfully and genuinely engage in conservation we absolutely have to give them the space to develop an appreciation for nature first. After that, it’s up to them whether or not they deem it to be something worth fighting for.