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Catching and observing tadpoles & newts!

From an early age I’m passionate about the natural environment. So after becoming a parent myself it’s only natural for me to try to share the same values and fascination with my 2-year old daughter. I just thought up a new word for it as well: green parenting :)

Now, for anyone immediately thinking of communal living, growing veggies by using your own ‘manure’, and home schooling your kids: DON’T WORRY! Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I have written this for a mainstream audience. In fact I own a – not so fuel efficient – car, eat meat, drink dairy, own a whole range of electronic gadgets and fly around the world regularly. Oops. In the same time we insulated our house, have a nature friendly garden, only use green gas & electricity, often buy organically produced food, support several hardworking NGO’s, recycle almost everything we can, sell and buy second hand products and minimize our ecological footprint as much as possible. So you see: nothing special here. In fact, our lifestyle probably reflects yours. And I have to admit, I just used a horrible catchy title to get your attention… and it worked didn’t it?

No, what I mean to say with green parenting is how you go about teaching your kid(s) about both knowing and respecting the natural world (besides all the other subjects you teach them about). Respect starts with knowing, and knowing start with both experiencing the outdoors and observing animals. Taking our 9-month old on a trip to Costa Rica probably wasn’t for everyone :) And obviously, you can start in your own backyard or local park. That is exactly what my wife and I did – just like millions of other people around the globe – with walks to the park and petting zoo were we collected leaves and harassed petted goats. We made trips to the dunes and the beach, where we plucked blackberries, played with sand or simply watched the waves.

I also took an abonnement so we can regularly visit the local zoo together (first Blijdorp, nowadays Artis). And no matter what your opinion might be of zoos in general, they are great for educational purposes (read my essay on zoos & aquaria). And YES, that zoo abonnement was a bit for dad himself as well… although nowadays she is the one in charge and decides which animals we visit :)
My wife interests partly overlap with mine, but she also has a real passion about quality produce and other food. So she started with teaching our daughter about cooking and where food comes from. Which is great, as our daughter is a bit of a difficult eater. For example: ever since we have a cherry tomato producing plant in the garden we got immediate results. While before she didn’t want to eat any tomatoes… now – because she harvests them herself – it’s a big treat!

My daughter immersing herself at Burgers' Ocean.
My daughter immersing herself at Burgers' Ocean.
 


So far so good, but I was wondering whether:
a) green parenting really pays off in the end?
b) there is a more structured approach to green parenting? AKA, are there any areas we are forgetting?

Throughout the world there is great concern that humans increasingly move away from nature, with possible negative effects on the wellbeing of children and also their affinity with the natural world. This concern is reflected for example in Richard Louw his bestseller ‘Last Child in the Woods’. Building on this concern the lead researcher on this subject in the Netherlands: Agnes van den Berg, found in research of others and that of herself that:
  • safe natural playscapes invite kids to move more and use more varied play forms. This seems to have a positive stimulation of the development of their motor skill and decreases the chance of developing obesity;
  • kids that work with their class in a vegetable garden seem to start to eat more vegetables and fruit then kids that don’t;
  • kids in natural surroundings seem to be able to concentrate better, have more self-control, more peace of mind and less psychological problems.

So that’s science taken care off. Although… it’s still a bit of a gamble now is it? Maybe in the end it won’t pay off at all, but accomplish the opposite. Upon reaching her 18th birthday my daughter might proclaim that she had a terrible childhood, filled with muddy safari’s looking for creepy crawlies and that she will absolutely never ever set a foot in nature again. AND that she plans to pursue a career in the relentless unsustainable harvest of depletable resource X with some big game hunting of critically endangered species on the side! Hmm… I will take my chances :) Seriously though: I will be grateful if she at least understands and respect the importance of the natural world.

Petting a chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii) in Costa Rica.
Petting a chestnut-mandibled toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus swainsonii) in Costa Rica.
 


So… how do we make that happen? As explained previously my wife and I already took some steps to teach her about nature, but how can we create a more structured approach to green parenting? Hereby an overview in which I explain which values or lessons we want to share with our daughter about the natural world, why we want to and how we can try to make that happen.

1) Knowing your planet is to value it
Overall, there is a strong belief that early childhood experiences in nature define their affinity with nature two decades later. Which is also my passionate belief and wish for my daughter. Think yourself of your earliest memory of nature: does that brings a smile on your face? Catching tadpoles, climbing trees and looking for autumn treasures are probably among the highlights of many kids, depending where you grew up. Hence, as a parent you can play an important role in educating your child about the natural world. So this is all about sharing knowledge and encourage curiosity, whether indoors or outdoors. Examples of activities are:
  • going out exploring, observing, collecting, photographing, and drawing nature together;
  • visiting zoos, botanical gardens and museums;
  • watching (animated) movies, documentaries;
  • reading fun stories, including our personal favorites about ‘Frog’ from Max Velthuijs.
2) Enjoy the outdoors
Enjoy life while you’re at it! Activities in the outdoors not only serves your child development, but also stimulates a healthy lifestyle, get them used to your way of life, sets an example AND you have quality family time along the way. Examples of activities are:
  • hiking;
  • biking;
  • camping and picnicking;
  • horseback riding;
  • sailing/canoeing, swimming, snorkeling and maybe even diving.
3) Respect all living things
Unfortunately, we live in a society with a very anthropocentric world view. I want my daughter to not only respect other people, but also other creatures. Species have an intrinsic value that goes beyond their (potential) use for humans. We are all part of that same intricately woven and interlocking web of relations that we call life on earth. Taking care of plants and animals helps with that, and research shows there are added psychological and emotional benefits to it as well. Taking care of my botanical orchids, freshwater shrimps and corals might be a little too much at this point though… Examples of activities are:
  • helping out in the garden;
  • taking care of a pet;
  • helping out on a local petting zoo, farm or horse stable;
  • explaining about animal welfare, husbandry, zoos, hunting and fishing.
4) Try to live sustainably
I want my daughter to learn not only good manners and be a productive member of society, but with respect to the environment as well. Throughout the entire duration of parenting there are numerous options in many aspects of your child’s life that you can influence. What you do and how far you go is up to you. We made a conscious decision for example to use disposable diapers, for convenience sake… Examples of activities are:
  • teaching them about the impact of human society on the environment;
  • teaching them how to minimize their ecological footprint: reduce, reuse and recycle;
  • signing them up for a kids program from an environmental NGO like the WWF.
5) Know and value food
While this lesson is actually a sub of both values three and four I put this specifically here anyway. We life in such a specialized and urbanized society that a) it’s not always clear where food comes from and b) it’s sometimes too processed, made unsustainably and/or contains too many potentially unhealthy hormones, pesticides or additives. Examples of activities are:
  • growing some of your own veggies, even if it’s just for educational purposes;
  • helping out in the kitchen;
  • visiting local farms and go see cows getting milked, harvest your own produce like apples and pears;
  • teaching them about the impact of food on our planet, about organic farming, about seasonal produce.

Observing Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in the wild.
Observing Hermann's tortoise (Testudo hermanni) in the wild.
 


So far my take on a structured approach to green parenting. Obviously, there is overlap between many of those values and I could probably mention a whole range of added benefits as well. For example: by exploring the outdoors I hope to teach my daughter to be self-sufficient, to learn to solve problems, navigation and safety. The most important thing however – at least in our view – is that learning about all these values hopefully contributes to leading a healthy life in a healthy manner.

Now onwards to the big question: how are we doing ourselves with green parenting our daughter? Well… we touch upon a lot of activities that are suitable to her age, but there is still room for improvement. Personally I would like to spent more time on enjoying the outdoors. While we regularly go on short walks, bike rides and occasionally sailing, both her young age as our busy life prevented us from doing more. Right now we are really looking forward to take her camping for the first time and eventually go on multiple-day hikes. Hopefully we will be able to shape our future family holidays and weekends around those pursuits. To be continued...

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
- William Blake (1757 – 1827)

Invitation to my readers
I claim nothing new here, it’s just my personal conscious take on something that many people already do. Obviously there already exists loads of teaching methods and materials developed for use in preschool, primary or secondary education. I wanted to focus on what (grand)parents can do in this regard. This essay is not exhaustive by any means, but hopefully a living document to which I keep adding thoughts and ideas. If you are a parent or teacher and want to add to this essay or share your own viewpoint and ideas then I invite you to please leave a comment!

Bart and education
Educating kids about nature is fun! Besides being a fulltime dad, I hope to inspire kids about the natural world with my freelance photography activities. In my professional career as a conservation consultant for Dunea I:
  • wrote the vision statement behind De Tapuit - the successful visitor center of Dunea in Meijendel that receives over 100.000 visitors a year - and oversaw the construction of its exhibits;
  • co-wrote Dunea their management plan on dunes, including the goal of making a natural playscape (called ‘speelbos’ in Dutch), that eventually led to the creation of the well visited ‘Monkeybos’;
  • was responsible for drafting Dunea its policy on and approach to education.

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Green parenting