Every April more than half a billion people worldwide celebrate Earth Day. Communities use the day to raise awareness about issues that range from cleaning up a local river to taking on global warming. Parents can also use the day to talk to their children about how human habits affect the planet.
"The truth is that early childhood is the best time to establish green habits," says Alan Greene, MD, a pediatrician and the author of Raising Baby Green (Jossey-Bass). When you're teaching your 1-year-old to brush her teeth, for instance, adding the water-conservation step of turning off the tap hardwires that action into the process. The payoff: You save roughly 2.5 gallons of water from disappearing down the drain every 60 seconds the tap is on -- multiplied by twice a day for a lifetime! Read on for six more ways to raise the next generation of planetary stewards.
The best news about passing on green habits to your kids is this: What's good for the planet is almost always beneficial for their health too. For example, just the simple act of getting outdoors fosters a love of nature. "Even babies can appreciate the feeling of a fresh breeze or the freedom of tumbling on a picnic blanket," says Kathleen Rogers, the president of Earth Day Network (earthday.net) and a mother of two. "Kids are natural naturalists."
As children grow, parents can teach -- but not preach -- a respect for nature. If you see a plastic sack floating down a river, explain how pollution hurts wildlife, Rogers suggests, or join a cleanup effort at a local park or beach. This shows kids not only that we should help the planet but that we can, adds Lori Bongiorno, a mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of Green, Greener, Greenest (Perigee Trade).
Help Your Daycare or School Go Green
A few easy green practices and policies to consider:
- Reduce how much packaging you purchase and pitch. Start with individual plastic water bottles, says Wendy Gordon of the Green Guide Institute, publishers of thegreenguide.com. Write your kid's name on a reusable cup, and encourage him to use it regularly and take responsibility for it.
- Organize an all-school clothing and toy swap. Or sell the items and use the proceeds to adopt an animal through programs offered by Defenders of Wildlife (defenders.org) -- thereby expanding the "student body" to include an Indian elephant or an African gorilla. At home, "engage your kids in the process of trying to decide how to get rid of things," says Christopher Gavigan, a father of one and the author of Healthy Child Healthy World (Dutton). "It will help them realize that acquiring new stuff eventually leads to decisions about how to reuse or repurpose it when it's no longer useful to you."
- Reuse packaging for art projects. Tissue boxes can become building blocks; lidded yogurt containers are useful receptacles for homemade play dough.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Toddlers are fascinated by how things grow, so imagine how powerful your child will feel when the seed she's pushed into the soil results in an 8-foot-high sunflower, says Lynda Fassa, of Tarrytown, New York, the author of Green Babies, Sage Moms (NAL Trade). This mother of three encourages parents to get kids gardening, even if that means tending to a terra-cotta pot on a windowsill.
Green Your Shopping and Cooking
When buying and preparing food and disposing of food waste, we make environmental choices virtually every step of the way, Gordon says. And because these tasks are so repetitive, children have ample opportunity to internalize "how Mom and Dad do it." For better or worse, Gordon adds, parents' habits will shape the choices kids make. Little explaining is needed: If Dad rinses out the tuna can and sorts it for recycling, that action simply becomes part of the drill. Other green food habits:
- Bring reusable plastic bags to the grocery store -- both little ones for bagging produce and big ones for toting home the haul. Keep a cloth tote bag in the car for quick trips to the store.
- When the seasons permit, shop at farmers' markets and farm stands, chatting with the vendors about their food, so kids gain an understanding of where our food comes from. Visit at least one pick-your-own berry or apple farm.
- Eat locally, buying in-season produce in abundance, then "put food by," just like your grandmother might have done, Gordon suggests.
As these books become household favorites, your kids will internalize their eco-friendly messages:
- The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, illustrates the perils of pollution and deforestation.
- My Earth Day Surprise, by Mercer Mayer, teaches kids about global warming.
- Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle, is a rhyme using names of 10 endangered species.
Celebrate Earth Day!
Earth Day Network calls on us to think of Earth Day as "a day of action and community," Rogers says. Start by checking out earthday.net, which posts thousands of activities around the country and invites organizers to upload info on their events, no matter how small. To involve your neighborhood or school:
- Beautify your schoolyard or block by planting a tree. Kids love digging in the dirt and will take pride in watching the tree grow.
- Organize a plant sale, picking up flats of pretty springtime flowers -- such as pansies or petunias -- and selling them at a profit. Give the proceeds to an environmental cause.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.