One of the most important things that you can do to raise children that will grow into environmentally concerned adults is to consciously help them appreciate both their own vitality and their connectedness to the natural world.
The following are 7 concepts you can inject into day-to-day life with your child to help them become more aware of the beauty of their biology:
1. The power of their amazing body
Make a regular effort to include the strength of your child’s body into discussions. A small injury is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate how their bodies will heroically jump into action to heal a hurt. Then over the next few days you can watch the healing happen. Encourage them congratulate their body on a job well done. When they are sick, teach them about their immune system. Explain how fevers work and why their body may want to rest. Celebrate all the ways in which they are capable of learning new skills and adapting to situations. Teach them about the gift of their mind. Explore their senses. Measure their growth and connect the idea of their growth to energy input (food) and genetics. Explore with awe, the anatomy of the various structures and systems in their body that allow them to what they do.
2. Care for that amazing body
Your children will only ever have one body and it is in their best interest to learn to care for it well. Spend time teaching them about the importance of good quality food and water, minimizing negative stresses, and getting regular exercise. In the process they will also be learning about what it takes to nurture life in general. They are developing an understanding of the concept of healthy, that they can then extend to things outside themselves. Caring for other living things and the natural world around them will be an easy extension.
3. Acknowledge the disgusting and the difficult
Part of becoming familiar with our biology includes making some room for some for the sad, terrifying, and disgusting aspects. Discuss honestly concepts like disease, death, animals eating other animals (including us when we eat meat), as well as unpleasant natural processes like throwing up, decay, parasites, etc. All of this is not meant to frighten, but simply acknowledge it as a normal part of life. Of course only you can best determine when they are mature enough to grasp these topics without becoming upset or terrified.
4. Birth, death, and living
Try to be clear about how life begins and ends, and all of the living that can be done in between. The process of growing and birthing a baby is an easy place to begin with children as they are almost always fascinated by the process. Although cute, made up metaphors about storks, birds, bees, and babies magically placed into mom’s bellies are really just confusing. When children are of an appropriate age discuss honestly with them how a new life is made. This doesn’t need to be limited to human biology. Grow plants together, learn about pollination, seeds, germination, and the requirements for life. In your discussions of life, don’t forget to include the inevitable. In our house we keep it simple with: “Everything that is lucky enough to get to live, will also one day die. It’s part of the deal”.
Wilderness experience in childhood is positively related to an individual’s level of environmental concern as an adult. People are less likely to participate in the destruction of something they have grown to appreciate and love. Spend time with your children visiting parks and wild areas, go camping, play in the sand and explore tide pools at the beach, go for walks in a forest and make them a sensory experience by pointing out different sounds and smells. At home take a moment to notice the weather and how the living things around you change with the changing seasons. Point out worms that emerge after a rain, bees searching for pollen and nectar, leaves and flowers bursting out of buds and birds migrating overhead.
Speak of humans as one type of the many different types of animals. Explore the similarities between us and other living things and how everything is interconnected. Introduce the idea of the food chain, symbiosis, and the cycling of nutrients and molecules. Be clear to your child about where they fit into the world.
7. Love your own biology
You must never underestimate the power of modelling good behaviour. Show respect and appreciation for life in everything that you do. As hard as it may be sometimes, love your own body and it’s rightful place among all things alive. Love how it heals, how it changes, and how it lets you experience the world. If you struggle with this, try to come at it from a perspective of: If you are healthy you are extremely lucky that you have a well functioning body! If you are not healthy, well you are still alive which is itself a very special gift!