In college, I spent two summers working for Hunterdon County Parks in New Jersey as a Summer Nature Program leader. I created my own week nature program and repeated it eight times throughout the season to over 70 third and fourth grade campers. The age group was referred to as the “Pioneers.”
My goal was for the Pioneers to foster a deep appreciation for nature and the environment, so my program included tree walks, hikes to the ravine and a number of ponds, and discussions about the water cycle, pollution and sustainability. I even planned an entire day centered on the local Lenape Native Americans and their relationship with the Earth. Though my job was to educate my campers, I found more often they were educating me.
My Pioneers were already familiar with ways to live an eco lifestyle. They could identify our composting bin, willingly and passionately recycled, and proudly explained to me the organic and locally grown foods that made up their lunches. To continue the conversation, I discussed climate change, carbon dioxide emissions and the dwindling polar bear population with my campers. We coupled this conversation with a sustainability game where we brainstormed ways to be as energy efficient as possible in each room of our houses (and encourage our parents to do the same!).
My campers surprised me every week, already familiar with “squiggly” (CFL) light bulbs, biodiesel (one camper recognized “French fries” as an alternative form of energy), and hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.
I believe that the earlier children learn about their responsibility as a steward of the planet, the more time they have to develop into concerned environmentalists. A great place to foster this lifestyle is in school. I think environmental education programs could be incorporated into any lesson plan for any subject at any grade level – without requiring teachers to deviate from their curriculum requirements. For example, a Reading and Language Arts teacher could use publications like National Geographic’s Extreme Explorer to bring together textual analysis and a sustainability twist by requiring their students to read articles that discuss of the idea of a carbon footprint.
Of course, a field trip or two would also be necessary! There is no better way to learn than experiencing something first hand. My campers were learning about the environment not in a classroom but outdoors, which allowed for them to be surrounded by the beauty of nature and grasp the idea of conservation through their own personal experience. It was incredibly exciting as a Nature Program Leader to see young girls wearing snakes as necklaces and watching campers’ smiles stretch wide when they find a skull inside an owl pellet. When a camper would come up to me and ask if we could check on the swallow fledglings in the barn or when I had a swarm of children running at me and screaming about how someone found a frog or an insect, it gave me hope for the future.
Hanging at camp was a sign with a quote from ecologist Baba Dioum that I firmly believe in: “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”