How does that cheesy Whitney Houston song go…”I believe the children our are future…da di da da da di da da da”. Not sure of the rest of the lyrics but that opening burst by Whitney certainly encapsulates my view on where we should be focusing the sustainable living agenda – on the kiddies! Poor old Whitney, I wonder what happened to her future?
Anyway, I sometimes get asked for my opinion on how to encourage kids to think more sustainably. Firstly, I think kids are being exposed to the benefits of sustainable living much more than our generation did, especially at school and through the media. The key, however, is what they are exposed to at home. If children are living in a wasteful household with no exposure to the sustainable things of life then the lessons taught at school are likely to be lost. So here are my top ten sustainable living education tips for your children (adapted from Sustainable Living For Dummies, 2007):
1. Understanding the value of space: I’m going to put on my urban planning hat here. One of the major contributors to urban sprawl, and the many social and environmental problems it causes, is people’s desire for occupy their own private space. Space at home, with large bedrooms, large living rooms and large play rooms. Space in the backyard. Space to separate yourself from your neighbours. Space for your car. Space for your partner’s car. Space, space, space. Why do people want so much space? One of the reasons my friends give is that they would like their kids to grow up with the type of space they grew up with. This belief, however, consolidates the legacy that contributes to urban sprawl. I sometimes wonder how a European, African, South American or Asian parent might respond if someone told them that their kids are not as well adjusted as American or Australian kids because ours have a rumpus room and a big backyard to play in! Regardless of whether you’ve got a big backyard or a big house, I’d still be encouraging kids to:
* Take them down to the local public park to play with their friends.
* Accompany them on their bikes and on public transport rather than driving them around everywhere.
* Explain to them that growing up in an apartment or townhouse is not abnormal and that, in fact, most of the world lives this way.
* Walk with them to your local shops, library and other community facilities.
2. Understanding how your garden grows: If you have a backyard, then don’t treat them as empty spaces that you sometimes use for hanging the washing. Not all backyards are a waste of space; quite the contrary. They can be valuable additions to the local ecosystem and you can live more sustainably with a backyard. You can reuse your grey water, compost your vegetable wastes and plant fruit and veggies in them. Kids can get to appreciate and learn about recycling, water use and gardening by being involved with you in your garden. Some children are particularly attracted to worm farms, the mulch they provide for the garden and the local bird life they attract.
3. Explaining how electricity is provided: I know when I was growing up I took electricity for granted – it was just there waiting in the walls to be used. I had no idea how it got there, although I had a clue that the overhead wires on the street had something to do with it. For a long time, I had no idea that the primary source of generating electricity was burning coal and I had no idea that this was such a problem for the environment.Show your kids from a young age how electricity is provided, how it works, how much it costs. Emphasise behaviour to minimise your electricity use and they will not take it for granted as they get older. Hopefully, by that time, clean renewable electrical energy will be the norm.
4. Encouraging cycling: A youngster’s first opportunity to escape their parents is when they get their first bike and start riding it to places they could only get to if someone, usually mum or dad, gave them a lift. A bike is sometimes the first step to independence and freedom! The social and environmental benefits of riding should be made obvious when you give them their first bike: no pollution, no greenhouse gases and an inexpensive way to get around – especially when you compare it to your car use.
5. Throwing less stuff away: I used to empty the contents of the classroom bin without giving a thought to where the rubbish ultimately went. I was never told. In this era of recycling I’m sure kids are taught what can be recycled and what can’t, but it shouldn’t end there. Kids should also learn to generate less waste and reuse things more often. Teach kids to think about what they are throwing in the bin by understanding what happens to waste after it leaves their hands.
6. Appreciating water: Kids love swimming in it and love playing with it. What they might not appreciate is how precious water is. If they did, then they might start to appreciate the need to preserve water when using the hose, or the bathroom. Explaining that water is essential to life, and is in short supply is not as hard as you might think. Messages might include:
* Most of what you drink contains water.
* Your body is mostly made up of water.
* People, animal and plants die without water.
* You pay for water – show them the water bill.
* A drought is when there is not enough rain to supply the water we need –
make them look at news stories about the drought.
If you teach them these basic facts they will soon start lecturing you, and the neighbours, on using water wisely.
7. Respecting nature: Most kids love to camp – especially if they get to see wildlife. There is no better opportunity to teach your kids the value of the environment than by going camping and adopting some of the leaving no trace principles that are integral to experiencing nature without impacting on it. Practice the following principles when you go camping:
* Minimise waste and dispose of it properly.
* Do not alter natural areas to suit your purposes.
* Avoiding camping in places where you can see that overuse is degrading the area.
* Use biodegradable products, especially for washing and cleaning.
* Leave what you find where you find it.
* Respect wildlife by not feeding animals or other wildlife and just view them from a distance.
8. Respecting other cultures: Appreciating how other cultures live and what they value can be particularly important in understanding the social aspects of sustainability. Explain fair trading, globalisation and the importance of a strong local community. Give your kids an understanding of how other cultures live by visiting areas in your city where other cultures are visible. Discuss the day-to-day problems people in other countries deal with. And watch news stories and documentaries about other cultures with them.
9. Being trendy without buying new gear: The peer group pressure to buy the latest fashion is stronger than any influence you might hope to have. It’s a tough call to encourage your kids to recycle or reuse their clothes as they get older. Even so, it’s an extremely valuable lesson if you can pull it off. Getting them in the habit of shopping in second hand shops while they are young is an important first step. So is teaching your kids how to care for their clothes and how to become handy with a needle and thread. Like all lessons you want to teach your children, setting the example, and introducing them to other people who live by the same principles is the best way to convince them that what you’re asking them to do is reasonable.
10. Eating healthy food: You want your kids to grow up without all those unnatural chemicals and other additives that enter the food production process so as they don’t crave them later in life. Kids can love fruit and fresh food – you’ve just got to give them a chance to grow to like it – which many of our generation didn’t get because our parents used to boil all the goodness and taste out of vegetables, for example. Make sure they get a taste for it as early as possible, before they get addicted to soft drinks and snacks in packets. But be warned, talking with your children about what goes into the foods they are eating will only make sense if the whole family has converted to healthy eating habits. Explain some of the food production issues that they may not be learning much about at school such as food additives, antibiotics, hormones, genetic engineering and unnatural farming methods. Hopefully they will be so disgusted that they actually request healthier and more sustainable foods as they grow up.