This Thursday April 22nd, hundreds of millions of people around the world will gather virtually to celebrate and honor the fifty-first Earth Day. Founded in 1970 to reverse damage done during the 1950s and '60s, Earth Day began solely as an American holiday. Today, however, the holiday is referred to as International Mother Earth Day and is assigned a yearly theme of worldwide importance. This year's theme is "Restore Our Earth." Because environmental protections often surge or falter depending on the administration in charge, an annual holiday dedicated to ecological preservation, climate action and environmental responsibility is clearly still much needed. Earth Day is especially important for educating children and teens. The climate is still in crisis and the next generation will likely be charged with designing and implementing reparative solutions. As Living Deep co-founder Jason McLennan said in his presentation “How We’ll Live and Work in the Communities of the Future” for ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, “human mentality is the biggest barrier…to a sustainable future.” Fostering a love of nature early in childhood shifts kids’ mentality away from consumption and towards preservation. It helps ensure that our current throw-away culture will not survive to infect another generation. Engaging with nature from an early age encourages kids to prioritize the health of their habitats and to limit the impact they have on the environment. Follow below to learn more about how children benefit from immersion in nature and how to talk to your kids about the environment on Earth Day 2021.
Reasons to Foster Your Kids’ Connection to Nature
#1 Nature Improves School Performance and Social Comfort
In her article “Six Ways Nature Helps Children Learn” from UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, Dr. Ming Kuo outlines all the ways in which children benefit intellectually from engaging with nature. Dr. Kuo currently leads the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, researching links between the natural world and human health. Over the course of her career, Kuo has studied how access to nature impacts crime, mental health and longevity. She has written for the Journal of Landscape and Urban Planning, Frontiers in Psychology and many other publications.
Writing for Greater Good, Kuo explains that “nature restores children’s attention,” “relieves children’s stress,” “helps children develop more self-discipline,” “makes students more engaged and interested” and “promote[s] social connection and creativity.” Improving attention span, relieving stress and promoting social skills all helps children achieve and feel more comfortable in school. Kuo references a number of studies, noting that greener schools actually “have higher test scores, even after taking income into account.”
#2 Nature Protects Against Struggles Associated with Mental Health and Behavioral Disorders
In addition to encouraging positive behaviors in children, exposure to nature can protect against depression and other mental health struggles. This is true in children, adolescents and adults of all ages. In her article “Dose of nature at home could help mental health, well-being during COVID-19” for UW News back in April 2020, Michelle Ma quoted researchers like Kathleen Wolf and Peter Kahn. Quoting Wolf, Ma wrote that “‘studies have proven that even the smallest bit of nature — a single tree, a small patch of flowers, a house plant — can generate health benefits.’” Michelle Ma also sought advice from Peter Kahn -- UW professor of psychology and of environmental and forest sciences -- who noted that “‘part of the effect of nature is that it can soften negative conditioned mental patterns’” and behavior in both children and adults. The 2004 study “A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study” conducted by Dr. Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Dr. Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD published in the American Journal of Public Health revealed that “green outdoor settings appear to reduce ADHD symptoms in children across a wide range of individual, residential, and case characteristics.”
The 2019 research paper “Residential green space in childhood is associated with lower risk of psychiatric disorders from adolescence into adulthood” by Kristine Engemann, et. al. reinforced connections between exposure to nature and mental wellbeing. This study found that “children who grew up with the lowest levels of green space had up to 55% higher risk of developing a psychiatric disorder independent from effects of other known risk factors.” After surveying over 900k people nationwide, Engemann and her colleagues determined “that integrating natural environments into urban planning is a promising approach to improve mental health and reduce the rising global burden of psychiatric disorders.”
#3 Nature Supports Healthy Childhood Development
Not only does exposure to nature improve academic and social performance while reducing risk of mental health struggles, but playing outside also bolsters health in early childhood. As Kristin Poppel and Martha C. Monroe explain in their paper “Why is Exposure to Nature Important in Early Childhood?” for the University of Florida, “Early childhood is a crucial period for the physical and cognitive development of children.” Monroe and Poppel reference numerous studies when connecting exposure to nature with “chronic disease prevention” and other “lasting health benefits for children.”
Researchers Kylie A. Dankiw, Margarita D. Tsiros, Katherine L. Baldock and Saravana Kumar underscore this in their 2020 study “The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review.” Dankiw et. al. determined that the findings of their study “support current claims that engaging in outdoor play is more effective in increasing PA [physical activity] in children.” When compared to traditional play spaces, their findings suggested that “nature play positively impacts upon children’s cognitive development, particularly in affording imaginative play.”
3 Tips for Talking to Kids About the Environment on Earth Day 2021
#1 Sign Up for a Virtual Event
The majority of children, teens and Generation Y parents across the country are either partially or completely unvaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. As such, we suggest educating your kids about the challenges facing our environment by signing up for a virtual event this Earth Day 2021. In the article “7 cool ways to commemorate Earth Day with kids in 2021” for Today, JiaYing Grygiel offers a number of “safer-at-home” options for pandemic-wary parents. For children in their early to late teens, Grygiel suggests events designed by the Earth Day Network. Grygiel references “a three-day event (April 20-22) with virtual workshops, panel discussions and special performances” hosted by EDN. We recommend their Global Youth Summit -- taking place worldwide on April 20th from 2:30 PM ET. Parents of younger kids can tune in with their children to the EDN’s “Teach for the Planet: Global Education Summit” at 7 AM Eastern on the 21st of April.
If you prefer to unplug and learn together at home, we suggest considering the Earth Day 2021 Toolkit from NASA Earth. The kit includes a number of science-backed resources including eClips produced by students and “games, hands-on activities, videos and articles designed to inspire upper-elementary-aged kids to learn more about Earth and space science.” For older kids, the 2021 Toolkit offers a whole host of “earth science articles for ages 9-14, produced by NASA’s Earth Observatory.”
#2 Encourage Imaginative Outdoor Play
Encouraging kids to play outside on Earth Day might not be the most explicit exposure to climate change, environmental responsibility and eco-consciousness. However, it certainly reinforces the value of preserved natural environments. In her article “How To Talk To Kids About Climate Change” for NPR, Anya Kamenetz identifies time spent in nature as one of the most effective ways to expose kids to the importance of nature and the dangers of climate change without overwhelming them. Referencing the experience of Oakland, California resident Dawn Danby, Kamenetz writes that parents are often worried they might make their children “too scared by what's happening to the planet.” Instead of overwhelming her young child with the immediate threat of climate change, Danby chooses to “spend as much time as possible exploring the outdoors, from old-growth forests to vegetable gardens.” Danby emphasizes the value of each plant and animal around her and her daughter -- no matter how small or seemingly insignificant.
Quoted by Kamenetz, Danby explains that she “encourages her daughter to ‘look at the bugs and think about what the bugs are doing ... everything has a role to play here.’" This helps children “understand the web of relationships in nature rather than dwelling on ecological damage” and encourages them to defend what they love rather than fearing what they cannot come to terms with. Choosing sustainable, eco-friendly toys and activities for children of all ages is another way to connect them to nature and foster an enduring appreciation of the organic world. We love the Wooden Balance Beam set by Wiwiurka because it helps school-aged children -- from toddler to kindergarten age -- “develop agility, balance and confidence.” Wiwiurka’s balance beam can be used indoors and out to reinforce a connection to nature as it is made of high-quality Mexican Pinewood. The balance beam encourages free play with its many adjustable patterns and orientations.
#3 Design an Educational Earth Day Activity at Home
The “Earth Day 2021” posting by CalRecycle offers a number of fun options for educating young kids about environmental responsibility on Earth Day. This brief from the California government suggests teaching kids how and why to compost at home in order to “store more carbon from the atmosphere.” Teaching kids how and why to recycle is another fun, necessary activity for younger children to learn and engage with on Earth Day. Writing for Project Learning Tree, Rebecca Reynandez provides a few more intensive options in their article “EARTH DAY ACTIVITIES TO INSPIRE YOUR STUDENTS AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE.” For older kids, Reynandez suggests “writing down a commitment and making a plan” to act against climate change or making “make a video or presentation urging others to take action.”
If your home includes younger children, Project Learning Tree recommends “making signs for school and at home” that encourage eco-friendly habits. These might include “Don’t forget to turn it off!” posters under light switches, below fans or next to thermostats. Perhaps best of all -- however -- is remaining kids that children can indeed make a difference. Reynandez recommends exposing kids to other young environmentalists lobbying for action against climate change and environmental responsibility. She writes that “learning about the work these young people are doing can give your [kid]s new ideas for how to protect the environment [and] can open the door of possibilities for how to think about finding solutions to problems they can help solve.”