Knowing that our local school does not cover environmental themes in its kindergarten curriculum, I ask, “Where did you hear about the polar bears, babe?”
“The substitute teacher read a book at group time,” he explains between bites of grilled cheese sandwich. “It said that there are less polar bears every year.”
“So… what does it mean to be extinct?” I probe.
“Gone forever,” he replies, putting down the sandwich and frowning. “That’s awful! People are so stupid!”
“Why? How do people affect the polar bears?”
Using the oratory voice he adopts when “teaching,” my son begins to explain. “People make the polar bears swim a long way. When they can’t find land, they get drowned.”
Teachers, parents, and other caregivers have the best of intentions when introducing children to environmental problems such as endangered species and climate change. The goal is to grow stewards of a sustainable future. Yet I’m concerned that we rush into this effort before children have a basic grasp of “how nature works” or are grounded by familiarity with their local environment. The outcome may be a rising tide of environmental apathy. Often attributed to lack of exposure to nature, this emotional disconnect may equally be the result of overexposure to the details of humanity’s impact on the environment.
I contend that children are best served when environmental education starts close to home, focusing on the parts of nature they can observe and investigate directly. This realm of exploration can be gradually expanded to take in the diversity of life on Earth. Using this approach, young people in the middle grades are developmentally and conceptually prepared to grasp the complex underlying reasons for environmental threats.
Parents can forward this cause simply by getting children out of the house, to places—backyards, gardens, parks, beaches, etc.—where they gain a multifaceted, personal experience of nature. Reading is another bulwark. Through books, children see the familiar with new eyes; they explore diverse settings and ideas before encountering them directly.
As an author, educator, and parent, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to read a wide variety of children’s literature that deals with nature and environmental themes. Here on NatureLit, I will review and recommend literature in those genres. We’ll look at books—fiction and non-fiction, at all reading levels—that:
- offer compelling stories and art
- are factually accurate (within the scope of the intended theme, genre, and audience)
- use language and content that are developmentally appropriate for the audience
- are currently in print (though not always “new”).
In addition to developing children’s sense of place, studies show that unstructured play in nature enhances learning, behavior, and health—not to mention simply being fun.
For more on this topic, see works by David W. Orr and Stephen R. Kellert, both of whom have studied children’s relationship to nature since the early 1990s.
The benefits of reading know no age limit. Visual perception improves as an infant gazes at colorful illustrations; s/he bonds with parents whose voices are heard in a soothing daily ritual of reading. In a toddler’s hands, a book becomes an object of curiosity to be manipulated and explored with all the senses. Young children savor the repetition of favorite stories, in the process gaining a wider vocabulary and making sense of common speech patterns. Through books, older children begin to make mental connections between the familiar and the new. They learn to anticipate, evaluate, and communicate—skills that will be valuable throughout life.