By Mary Alice Hartsock
“Sustainability” is a big word. It’s complex enough that experts write books about it, and important enough to compel companies to integrate it into their strategic plans. Whether you are an adult naturalist or a tiny explorer, getting your mind wrapped around the many meanings of “sustainability” can be challenging. That’s why the first thing experienced Academy educator Allie Krisch does is break it down.
As the Academy’s manager of science and community programs and former coordinator of the Women In Natural Sciences program for young women from Philadelphia high schools, Krisch has taught science to just about every age group and maturity level. She believes that there are many ways to help your child learn about the environment. Here, she provides some general guidelines for talking with kids about being green.
Kids should be exposed to recycling in school and in their communities, and the best way to reinforce these messages is by being a role model, Krisch says. For example, when you’re cleaning up after a meal, you might explain why you use glasses and dishes instead of disposable items. Or you might explain why you throw a milk jug into the recycling and not the trash. For this age group, hands-on learning works great. Have kids sort through clean food packaging and recyclables (check first to remove any sharp edges!), or have kids look around a room and point out things that can be recycled.
As you are preparing meals, engage your kids. Krisch recommends that you ask them to think about the packaging that butter, eggs, vegetables, and other ingredients come in and what can be recycled. Do you buy foods in bulk? Explain why your family does so—whether it’s to save money for the long-term, to save packaging, or both. Take slightly older or more mature kids grocery shopping and encourage them to check out food packaging in the store. Take along reusable bags, and point out how to properly dispose of plastic bags outside grocery and hardware stores. This is also a good time to start using keywords like “sustainability” that kids may be hearing in school.
The best approach for teaching middle school kids about sustainability is to relate the subject to their lives, Krisch says. Ask them lots of questions, and frame the conversation around their interests to encourage their participation. For example, if they like sports, ask whether environmental conditions affect their practice space or playing field. If they are focused on technology, ask about the environmental implications of their phones or tablets.
Often high schoolers already know and practice many sustainable behaviors. But Krisch says they may not realize how much of an impact they alone can have on the environment. Pick a relevant concept—for example, the water supply in the City of Philadelphia— and ask them to think about how they can help it to become sustainable. Don’t be afraid to use the term “sustainability”—but approach with caution. At some point, ask what your child thinks it means to be sustainable. If they’re not sure, ask them what the word sounds like it might mean.
The Academy is a great place to get kids and adults alike thinking more about our environment and what we can do to preserve it. As an Academy supporter, you can be a great role model for friends, family, and others who cross your path. Learn more about our sustainability vision, and get more resources and tips on how to be green in your everyday life.
This article first appeared in the fall 2014 issue of our member magazine, Academy Frontiers.