Empowering a new generation of environmental champions

2015 03 12 1426188041 1888511 Earthday

By Philippe Cousteau Jr.

As we approach the 50thAnniversary of Earth Day, helping our children to understand how they can have a positive impact on our planet and help others to do the same couldn’t be more important or relevant. As headlines about plastic waste, devasting wildfires, and species decline mount, youth around the world are stepping up to the challenge of protecting our critical natural resources. From 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg to student-led beach cleanups, youth are providing a beacon of hope for a sustainable future.

As the founder of EarthEcho International—a leading nonprofit dedicated to engaging youth in environmental action—and recent first-time father, I’m convinced that youth have the power to change our world for the better. At EarthEcho, we’ve identified three basic approaches that can help engage young people to make a positive impact on the planet and their communities.

1. Engage young people authentically and on their terms.Acknowledge that the opinions and voices of our younger citizens matter, no matter their age, and engage them in ways that meet them where they are. Naturalists and nature lovers often eschew technology, asserting that nature and technology are mutually exclusive, when in fact they must coexist if we are to engage young people in a relevant way. Like it or not, children live in a hyper-connected world. Our budding environmental leaders can explore the bigger picture with their devices through simple acts like identifying new critters or plants on a nature walk or recording a natural weather phenomenon for citizen-science projects using apps like iNaturalist.

Helping our kids see the power of technology as a tool and not as the experience itself positions them to develop strategies to solve problems in ways we may have never considered. It also engages them in a language they already understand! Technology is often demonized but it can also empower kids in a positive way by sharing their experiences and discoveries and connecting them to the bigger picture with a bigger purpose.

  1. Help young people understand the bigger picture. Start with basic resources and practices that touch our lives every day. Connect the dots for a child about how local bodies of water make much of our daily lives possible, from cooking food to brushing our teeth. Or how reusable shopping bags can help save their favorite marine animal. Even the smallest journey can spark exploration and discovery that’s transformative. A great example of this is plastic drinking straws, representative of the plastic trash problem. While a child may not have much control over their daily lives, they can say, “No thank you,” to a single-use plastic straw. This empowers them to make a difference and influence those around them to do the same.

Simple actions and a sense of purpose can help form a young person’s view of how they can change the world for the better. When young people believe that everything they do makes a difference in the world, they can become a tremendous force for change.

  1. Encourage action. I have a simple mantra that guides our work: awareness does not lead to action, action leads to awareness. Whether it’s a small step in your household or participation in global programs like EarthEcho’s Youth Leadership Council, empowering kids to take part in solutions fuels a sense of pride that can inspire a child for a lifetime. Tapping into your child’s inherent curiosity with activities that are accessible and that deliver tangible results are excellent starting points. Through programs like the EarthEcho Water Challengewe’ve seen simple actions create a sense of accomplishment and connection. Each year, young people get outside on local waterways to test and record simple data on their community water quality. It’s common to see a group of young people’s faces light up as they huddle at the side of a creek reading the real-time results of a simple water monitoring test. They are doing science. They are connected. They are making a difference. Action doesn’t have to be complicated, it just needs to be part of the equation. That’s how we tap into the inner problem solver in every child.

Today, youth understand far more about the state of our planet than we might think. They are determined to create a different relationship with the natural world that focuses on solutions, not excuses. As parents, mentors, educators, and community leaders, we can help them on their journey.

Philippe Cousteau Jr. is co-founder of the youth leadership nonprofit EarthEcho International.

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