Empowering Young Children To Protect Nature
These days, it’s not hard to find examples of the impact of climate change on the world around us: massive forest fires, intense hurricanes and blizzards, and distressing trends in weather patterns.
Many of us feel overwhelmed, even terrified, by the seemingly insurmountable challenge of combating and mitigating the effects of climate change, even as adults.
And in the face of an uncertain future,our children feel the mounting pressure to do better, be better, and make the changes we feel incapable of making ourselves.
With one hand we’re trying to raise our children to be environmental heroes, capable of stemming the tide, while with the other we demonstrate the overwhelming scope of climate change.
Within this push and pull is the risk of creating a generation who feel so defeated and disconnected from nature that they opt for inaction and detachment out of shear exhaustion, rather than attempting to protect the environment—Fear and disconnection pose as great a risk to our young people as the direct environmental effects of climate change.
It is our responsibility to help youth build an early relationship with nature, because it is only after a child first begins to care about nature that they will be instilled with the desire to protect it.
Any positive action for the climate, no matter how small it might seem, can have wide-reaching impact, so finding opportunities to light the spark of connection to nature is crucial.
Nature often provides these opportunities in unexpected ways, as my own preschool classroom discovered several years ago.
At Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, spending time outdoors and learning about nature are the norm.
But even among our nature-loving crew of educators, the prospect of broaching the topic of climate action with three- and four-year-olds can seem daunting.
On a warm September day, one of the preschool’s visiting naturalists joined our class for a tree activity.
Unrelated to the activity, she brought with her two Monarch caterpillars for us to raise with the purpose of scientific tagging and tracking of Monarch migration.
We were excited to welcome them to the class, and the children enjoyed observing them in the butterfly tent and making observational drawings.
One morning, we were unable to find one of the caterpillars. It showed up two days later in chrysalis form, stuck to the bathroom wall!
Fast forward two weeks, and we had two healthy, adult Monarchs ready for release.
The naturalist returned and helped us tag the butterflies’ wings for a scientific study to learn more about the migration habits of the Monarch butterfly.
She explained that scientists are worried about declining Monarch populations and need to gather more information so we know how best to help them.
One of many threats to Monarchs, she said, is the invasive plant, black swallow wort.
Monarch caterpillars can only survive on a diet of native milkweed plants, and while black swallow wort is in the milkweed family, it is not native to North America and so cannot support the caterpillars’ needs.
In recent years, Monarchs have started laying their eggs on this invasive plant instead of the native varieties; thus, it is highly detrimental to their population numbers.
When we released our two Monarchs that day, I thought that was the end of a very successful unit on butterflies.
However, each day as my class headed out for a nature walk, the students would ask me, “What about the black swallow wort? We need to get rid of it!”
It was clear that this idea had really stuck with them, so with a bit of research we discovered what the plant looked like and where we might find it on the farm.
We also learned that we could help stop the spread of the plant by collecting the seed pods before they could open and release their seeds.
Bag in hand, we went searching for black swallow wort, and it wasn’t long before we found large swaths of the invasive plants.
My students were determined and thorough.
By the end of our walk, we had a bag bulging with pods.
Seeing our naturalist friend as we walked back to class, the children excitedly ran up to show her what we had done.
She smiled broadly and asked, “How many did you collect?” Cue an unplanned math lesson.
In labelled trays, we counted all of the pods out….all the way up to 528!
I opened one pod to determine how many seeds were inside, and we estimated that we had collected over 10,000 seeds in just one walk.
The students were so proud that they asked to write a letter to the butterflies, telling them what we had done and instructing them not to lay their eggs on the swallow wort.
So, in the end, did our efforts matter?
From one angle, 15 students collecting 10,000 seeds on a one-hour walk, demonstrates just how many more seeds go uncollected all across the region, making our work seem like a drop in the bucket.
However, looked at from another direction, the effect that it had on our students—their pride and sense of accomplishment—was undeniable.
For weeks, even months, the children continued to talk about the butterflies and the impact of their own efforts.
They had done something to help the butterflies and it made a difference.
A year later, I heard that one of my old students had noticed swallow wort growing near his home and organized his entire neighborhood into an invasive removal effort.
The true impact of our unplanned butterfly curriculum was suddenly so clear:
The experience had filled my student with the confidence to take action when he recognized a problem in his own community, and to inspire others to join him and make an even bigger difference.
Like ripples in a pond, one small, meaningful moment had inspired other, larger moments in an ever-growing circle.
It wasn’t graphic scenes of widespread habitat destruction or melting ice caps that inspired a child to act, but a slowly-built relationship with one small creature and a real, local challenge.
I encourage you to look for those small moments, perhaps unplanned or unanticipated, that might help our youngest learners to make a connection to nature, to care about a particular place and the wildlife that lives there, and to feel empowered to make a difference.
No matter how small it might seem, the ripples extend much farther than we can possibly see.
To learn more about Mass Audubon’s education programs, including professional development for teachers, school programs for all ages, and resources for bringing more nature into your curriculum, visit massaudubon.org/education or email firstname.lastname@example.org
by Rina Zampieron, State-Wide Early Education Coordinator, Massachusetts Audubon