It’s more important than ever to connect with nature and make a difference.
April 22 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a day meant to celebrate the protection of the environment. It’s ironic that COVID-19, which has forced us indoors, has had the positive side effect of lowering our carbon footprint and protecting the outdoors. Skies all over the world are clearer as we burn fewer fossil fuels.
At the same time, however, the federal government has relaxed pollution reporting, and during the pandemic we can expect eco-friendly behaviors to be eclipsed by immediate safety precautions. For example, we’re now required to use many disposable and plastic products we might have avoided before. We can’t refill our liquid soap, peanut butter, vinegar, bulk grains, beans, nuts or other containers, or put our groceries in our own reusable bags.
It might seem as if Earth Day – even on this half-century anniversary – isn’t very important this year, but this isn’t true. It’s more important than ever that we embrace Earth Day for the sake of our children and our world. Here’s why:
- The pandemic has revealed how quickly a global disaster can destroy lives and livelihoods. In the same way, climate change, habitat destruction, and rapid species extinction may quite suddenly reach a tipping point that is catastrophic. We were caught off guard by COVID-19, despite decades of warnings about the potential of a devastating pandemic. If we are caught off guard by environmental collapse, it will be because we refused to pay attention. Let COVID-19 make us more determined to protect the Earth, not less.
- Appreciating the natural world is a win-win-win for children. During this pandemic, it’s a win because nature nourishes them deeply; a win because nature inspires their wonder, curiosity, and learning; and a win because love of nature motivates positive action, which is empowering and meaningful.
Below are some ideas for age-appropriate Earth Day activities to begin this week. For young children the most important way to celebrate is to fall in love with nature – nothing more or less. As they get older that love may well spark their actions on behalf of the natural world.
For young children
- Take children – or have them take each other – on a Wonder Walk through which their awe and curiosity about nature and other species will be fully awakened. Done in pairs outdoors, the Wonder Walk can happen in even the smallest areas of nature in the biggest cities in the world. (I’ve led Wonder Walks in Toronto, Chicago, Guadalajara, and Shanghai.) To go on a Wonder Walk, one person closes their eyes, while the other carefully leads them to experience nature through their senses. By gently tapping near their eye, ear, and nose, the leader invites them to open their eyes to see a flower, an ant, or lichen growing on a tree; to listen to the sound of a bird calling or the wind rustling through the leaves; to smell a tulip, a handful of earth, or the fragrant needles of a fir tree. By placing their hands on natural objects, leaders invite their partners to pay attention to the texture of a soft petal, rough bark, or crunchy dried leaves. After 8-10 minutes, switch roles.
- Play the Smell Teas game with children. Invite players to collect parts of plants in small cups to make a “tea” for smelling (not drinking!). You can use your finger to stir and “steep” your tea. Ask everyone to creatively name their tea, and then pass your cups around, giving each person a chance to smell the different teas and note their names. The game begins when each person takes a turn with their eyes closed smelling the different teas that are handed to them and trying to guess which tea it is. It’s always amazing how different the fragrances are, even when the “tea ingredients” come from the same natural area.
- Taking care to cause no harm to the natural world, create art in nature. Maybe you’ll create a mandala with found natural objects, wreaths or crowns, or a maze outlined with pine cones. You might also make music together by hitting sticks on logs or using rocks as percussion instruments.
- Invite your children to stand or sit quietly for 20 minutes looking at a small natural area (it could be as simple as looking at the bark of a tree) and record all the questions that arise from their observations. They may want to take photographs or make sketches of what they see as well. After the first 5 minutes of feeling like nothing is happening, they will likely begin to notice so much in their small spot, and their curiosity will be sparked to discover the answers to their questions. Back inside, they can do research to find those answers.
Photograph by Nicholas Birdsall
- Use an existing nature-based Scavenger Hunt or create your own based on the outdoor area available to you. Invite your children to look for animals’ homes; to notice different smells; to find several species of birds and a variety of insects. Their observation skills will increase along with their curiosity. There is so much to see and find even if we are confined to looking out the window.
- Help your children use their voice to speak up for the Earth. As they learn and care more about nature and animals, have them contact their legislators and company executives expressing their concerns about environmental impacts from human actions. This will have the added benefit of enabling them to practice their oral and written communication skills while they’re learning from home. They can also begin the solutionary work described for teens below.
- Teens may enjoy and benefit from all of the other suggestions above, so please don’t assume these ideas are only for younger children. At the same time, adolescents can and should be directing their concerns toward action. They can start by streaming Earth Day Live on April 22-24 here.
- Our world needs solutionaries who collaborate to solve environmental problems in ways that do the most good and least harm for people, animals, and the ecosystems that sustain us all. Teens can learn to become solutionaries by:
- Identifying an environmental problem of concern to them
- Researching the problem thoroughly while building investigative and critical thinking skills
- Reaching out to stakeholders (including those benefiting from the systems that pollute, destroy habitat, and harm animals in order to come up with solutions that these stakeholders can endorse)
- Devising solutions that they can implement by themselves or with others.
Helping your teens build a solutionary practice using our free Solutionary Guidebook will develop their thinking skills, direct their energy toward positive change, provide them with important real-world accomplishments, and empower them to continue to make a difference!
Earth Day is not on hold this year. It is, rather, a beautiful opportunity to renew your own commitment to the environment and model a message of stewardship throughout this pandemic. You may find that if you nourish a young person’s connection with nature, you might help both of you find calm amidst the tumult of these stressful times. When you engage their solutionary action on behalf of the planet you may reinvigorate your own dedication to making a difference. A commitment to Earth Day is particularly needed this year, so let’s bring that commitment into our lives, families, and communities through art, joy, education, and wise action.