You don’t need to wait until your kids are old enough for complicated lessons in ecology or environmental engineering to begin to teach them about the environment. Here are 5 simple, but essential environmental basics that even toddlers can understand and articulate.
1. Water is precious
Bath time, teeth brushing and hand washing are great times to talk about the fact that water comes from nature in the form of rain and lakes and rivers. In our house, we talk about how we need to save water for the fish and the birds, and that almost always helps convince a toddler to turn off the tap.
2. Paper comes from trees
Toddlers can go through a lot of paper - drawing paper, toilet paper, paper towels, tissues. What parent hasn’t found their toddler gleefully unspinning an entire roll of toilet paper? This is a good chance to talk about how these paper products come from trees so by using less we can keep more trees standing.
3. Garbage doesn’t actually disappear
Although my kids love putting things in the garbage can (it’s very grown-up to be able to do it on your own), they don’t inherently know what is garbage and what isn’t. They only put something in the garbage can because we tell them it’s garbage. Parents have a great opportunity to shape the way their kids look at garbage. We don’t need to teach them that the garbage is where we put everything that we no longer need. We could instead teach them to reuse or repurpose items or to donate them to others, that recycled items become something else and that paper towel tubes make great trumpets. Only when we can’t find any other use for an item should it go in the garbage and to the landfill.
4. Nature is alive
If you’ve ever come back from a walk with your pockets bulging with rocks, sticks and other precious treasures, you know that kids are natural collectors. Remind your kids that flowers, plants and bugs are alive so they need to be treated gently. That the trees are still using their roots and leaves so they should not be pulled. That rock piles are homes for tiny creatures. Personally, I advocate allowing kids to collect a few nature treasures - it only strengthens their connection to nature and nature can take it - but you should also feel free to institute a few rules about nature collecting. One mom we know allows her daughter to pick only the number of flowers equal to her age each time they are out. Have a place in your home to keep your child’s collected treasures (and keep them out of your washing machine).
5. All food comes from nature
Mom and dad, the kitchen, the grocery store, the garden, the farm, the drive-through – all valid answers to the question “where does food come from?” So it’s no wonder that today’s kids are disconnected from the source of their food. Even if you don’t have a farm on your doorstep, you can still talk to you kids about where food comes from and all the soil, water, sun and hard work that goes into growing it and getting it on their plates. Engage your kids by planting a garden, visting a farmer's market, choosing food at the grocery store and preparing meals. Aside from the ecology lesson, this kind of involvement often also helps finicky eaters try new things. Food waste is a difficult issue to tackle with fickle toddlers, but there are still things you can do like teaching them to serve appropriate portion sizes and saving leftovers .
It’s never too early to start planting the seeds of environmental responsibility with your children - pun very much intended. Rather, toddlerhood is the perfect time to nurture your child’s innate affinity for nature and to create the kind of warm memories of times spent in nature that will last a lifetime.