Opinion: When kids feel the magic of nature, they will want to protect it

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.” — Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder” Credit: Aaron Gilbreath

When people think of environmental activism and health, we often think of shaping policies: protecting groundwater from over-pumping; halting strip-mining and clearcutting; removing dams from salmon streams.

However, one important element of environmental health often gets missed: kids’ relationship with the natural world. This is why early childhood outdoor-based environmental education must play a larger role in the national environmental conversation, and environmental education programs must be significantly expanded and strengthened throughout the U.S.

One of the most important responsibilities that adults have is to connect our children to the natural world. As a lifelong environmentalist and outdoors person, I see few more essential tasks than helping young students acquire a sense of wonder that can infuse their entire life and to feel a connection to nature so strong that they will become the next generation of conservation-minded citizens. This serves both the students — giving them access to the physical, emotional and professional benefits of time outdoors — and society, which needs environmental advocates now more than ever.

Environmental values 

Environmental progress starts with peoples’ values, that is, what people consider important, what they want to protect. Some adults have an ecological awakening later in life — maybe they read a story of drying wells or heard gossip about the “forever chemicals” in their municipal water supply. Some of us develop environmental values in college, after peers go vegetarian or our professors introduce us to concepts like environmental injustice. But kids can develop these values much earlier, starting at home and in the classroom. 08-30-23

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