Deconstructing the “S” Word – How to introduce sustainability to your child

The “S” word — “Sustainability”, has become the new buzzword for educators and parents everywhere. But how exactly can you introduce a young child to the complex world of sustainability? Here are some simple ideas that you can implement for kids below the age of 9:

For ages 2 -4:

At this age the child is filled with wonder because of all the new experiences he/she is being subjected to. The child is just discovering all of the amazing things around him and is beginning to recognize his environment and develop linguistic, cognitive and motor skills. Many parents and educators have often asked us what is the right age to introduce the child to sustainability and eco consciousness. Since most brain development happens below the age of 5, we say the earlier the better.

When you teach children about trees, forests, animals and other things in your environment, also teach them about our dependency on them. We often say things such as “we should protect our environment” OR “we should protect animals”. However, this puts us in a superior position to our natural environment. It is also important to make children understand how everything is better if balanced. For example saying something like “Trees grow from seeds and give out oxygen. Trees also give fruits, shade from the sun and help with the water cycle. While we need and take all of these things from trees, we should not take too much or we will destroy the tree that helps us grow” This allows for the child to develop a positive relationship with nature, understanding that relationships with both people and nature are about give and take. Statements like these can also help teach children social skills and impart valuable lessons such as not being selfish or greedy.

For ages 5–9:

By this age the child knows how to identify various animals, understands the life cycle of creatures like the butterfly, understands the water cycle, habitats, ecosystems and much more. It is important at this age to also develop cognitive, linguistic and social skills.

For this age group you can introduce concepts such as waste segregation, what is waste and why it is bad. You can also introduce ideas such as reduce, reuse, recycle and upcycle. However, this is not enough. What is really important is to ensure that the child understands balance and circularity as is seen in nature. This will allow him to completely understand our symbiotic relationship with nature. For example, you can show a child how a banana peel composts in a pit of mud but a packet of chips does not. You can then initiate conversations about how everything in nature is circular (grow, consume, biodegrade, grow) but man made products are not and this leads to problems for us.

With balance too, you can do the same. Explain how certain species went extinct because of lack of balance in nature. Ask them to tell you a story based on these principals and initiate conversations and questions around these topics. You can also take children for nature walks and have a class in a natural setting for this. It is very important to highlight the human impact on environment at this age to create a generation of conscious consumers and producers who will be prepared to solve the problems of tomorrow. However, this has to be done in a positive, optimistic way with the focus maintained on solutions and productive outcomes rather than environment related problems that we face already.

Having early conversations with children about nature will not only teach them about nature, but will teach them how to be unselfish, good human beings with a deeper understanding of the collaborative environment that we live in today. For several generations we have lived in a competitive world, but now the entire world is coming closer together with fewer boundaries and with focus on collaboration rather than competition. These skills when taught early on, will prepare your child for the world of tomorrow.

*My organization, Upcycler’s Lab, creates learning tools and programs for parents and schools around sustainability. Our vision is to change mindset and behaviour around waste and therefore we only work with children below the age of 9 since most behaviour is formed by that age. Our newest program for schools uses play based learning, storytelling, crafts and songs to teach waste management to children.

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