How Do We Grow Green Adults?

By Katie Watson
April 2011

How do you grow an environmentalist? If we want kids to care about preserving the natural world, should we teach them about the destruction of the rainforest or about endangered species dying off? Research, and possibly your own personal experience, agree on the same answer - NO! One of the very best ways to help kids grow into adults who care about the environment is not to scare them or depress them, but to allow them to love nature. And the best way to do that is to give them free, unrestricted play time in nature.

Think back to your childhood. Do you have treasured memories of playing outside? What did you like to do? Alan Kirk and others in Los Alamos used to carve tracks for their Matchbox cars into the tuff. Others had bb gun wars in the canyons and caves. Right now there's a group of kids who have their own society in one of the canyons in Los Alamos, with houses, jobs, a currency, and more. People who grew up back East might remember playing in streams, catching tadpoles and watching them grow into frogs, or decorating mud cakes with ferns. Those who grew up on the coasts probably have lots of memories of building with sand and collecting and creating with shells. These happy childhood experiences are what create adults who care about the environment.

Too often, however, we adults imbibe children with our own fears and worries about the preservation of nature. We teach about climate change and ways to "save the planet" without thinking deeply about the effects these lessons can have on children. David Sobol calls the fear that this kind of teaching breeds, "ecophobia." Have you ever finished reading an issue of National Geographic and wanted to cry? This is ecophobia.

To avoid instilling this sense of fear and helplessness in our children, Sobel, in his landmark article, "Beyond Ecophobia," explains the need for different types of interaction with the environment at three different phases of childhood. Empathy is the key with children ages four to seven. Kids at this age are drawn to animals, and lots of their play involves pretending to be animals. From ages eight to eleven, children are interested in exploration - in building forts, carving out territory, and searching for treasures. It is only when kids get to about age 12 that they are really ready for social action, for "changing the world."

Research bears out the claim that the way to grow green adults is to foster an early love of being outside. Louise Chawla of Kentucky State University did a study of adult environmentalists to answer the question, "What happened in their childhoods to make them grow up with strong ecological values?" Her answer: many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.

How can we foster this kind of interaction with nature? It's as simple as going outside. Enjoy time in nature with your children, and allow them time to play and explore at their own pace. In our family, a "walk" often doesn't involve much walking. I always have to remember to bring a book, because we quickly encounter a great place to stop and play. Then I fade out of the picture as cakes are made, territory is staked out, and stories are created.

If you're interested in a more community-wide approach, PEEC is offering lots of opportunities. At Earth Day and as part of the Los Alamos Summer Adventure Program, we'll be sponsoring "Play in Nature" events, where kids can get down and dirty, build forts, open a mud cafe, or create houses for fairies. We'll also be offering our popular Green Hour hikes again this summer where families can meander along a trail together, stopping to play whenever they're inspired. And we hope to sponsor family nature clubs. These clubs are starting up all over the country, and give families a chance to get outside together. We'll have an organizational meeting for interested adults on May 11 at 7 p.m., at PEEC. Finally, share your experiences. PEEC is collecting stories of favorite childhood experiences playing in nature. Submit your story at our web site -

I'll close with a quotation from David Sobel. "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, 'The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.'"

Katie Watson is Program Director of PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center) and has helped to initiate PEEC's new Nature Play Area, which will be officially opened on Earth Day.


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