Kids can help the environment at home, at school and in local parks.
Do you know a superhero in training? If so, there’s an easy way for the child in your life to help save the planet: become a nature protector!
From backyard gardens to the school playground and beyond, there are countless opportunities for kids to support the ecosystem and understand why doing so is so important.
We asked some local experts for their recommendations on what young environmentalists can do to defend some of the most important species in the neighborhood.
Introduce the Basics and Help Kids Make Positive Associations
Kids are naturally curious, so quench their thirst for knowledge by helping them understand the reasons for taking care of the ecosystem. Tiffany Granberg, Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Arthur Sherwood Environmental Education Program Manager, says it all begins with finding ways for children to connect with nature.
“One of our teaching approaches is to help students make personal connections with the ecosystem,” Granberg says. “We’ll ask them to identify plants or animals that frequent their yard or neighborhood and explain the role it plays in the ecosystem. For example, the big oak tree that kids love to play under in the summertime also provides a place for birds to build their nests, naturally filters the air and water, and prevents dirt from washing away into our waterways when it rains.”
Although kids might be a little apprehensive about some of the “creepy crawlies” or something that might sting, Granberg says it’s important to remove the stigma through education..
“We also work to help children become less afraid of important pollinators such as bees by using humor or other methods to help personify bees and appreciate their ecosystem services. We try to trigger good memories and fun for students by talking about how bees can help grow their favorite foods such as watermelon, apples, black berries and cherries. And then we remind them that most of their favorite foods are grown with the help of pollinators.”
For Gerry Lockwood, a retired Anne Arundel County Head Start teacher (and grandmother of young nature lovers), harnessing kids’ sense of wonder does the trick.
“In order to get them interested in helping pollinators and birds, many children just need to be introduced to who visits the back yard and garden,” she explains. “If they can spend time with an adult as they work outside, children will learn about the animals that live there – what they like about this spot or why they visit.”
Explain the Vital Roles of Pollinators and Birds
Kids (and some adults) might not know it, but many of the small creatures we see flitting through the air or crawling around under foot are doing the ecosystem an invaluable service. While bees are the powerhouses of pollination, Granberg says that beetles, ants, moths, wasps, flies, and even hummingbirds act as pollinators.
So, what do these pollinators do? A lot, including ensuring that we have food.
Wanda MacLachlan, Area Educator for the University of Maryland Extension Residential Landscape Management, highlights just how crucial pollinators are.
“It is said that pollinators are responsible for over 30% of the food we eat. Supporting these species is important because without our pollinators, we wouldn’t be able to eat many of the fruits, vegetables, and meats we cherish.”
Explaining this to children will go a long way in their understanding of why it’s important to be kind to backyard species and adopt habits that help our environment. Let them know, too, that it’s not just bees and other insects that help our ecosystem- it’s also our feathered friends.
“Birds are also an integral part of our ecosystem,” MacLachlan says. “They help disperse seeds to plant future generations of the plants we use for food, medicines and timber.”
What’s more, birds hold the special power of being able to help nature regenerate, should it need to, says Granberg.
“Birds eat seeds from trees and other plants then disperse those seeds throughout forests, marshes, and grassland through their droppings. Birds can help ecosystems recover after floods, fires and other natural disasters.”
Help Your Child Make a Difference With These Activities
One way to begin is to grow a garden.
Lockwood says that something as simple as growing a small garden can open up a whole new world to budding conservationists.
“Even a container garden on a balcony or small patio can introduce children to the magic and wonder of growing plants that are beneficial for animals,” she says.
One of the best things the whole family can do in the fall is to make a mess.
Granberg and MacLachan agree that letting sticks, brush, and leaves collect in your yard is a good way to help preserve nesting sites for pollinators who rely on them in the winter.
Another tweak you can make to your yard maintenance routine is avoiding pesticides. Spray kills pollinators and can even end up in nectar and pollen once absorbed by plants, explains Granberg.
Using native plants is also a good thing. Species of trees and plants that are meant for our specific neck of the woods can best support the life that inhabits them.
“Planting native plants is important because they provide the proper nutrition for birds and pollinators, says Granberg, who recommends visiting the University of Maryland Extension’s website to see which varieties are recommended for our region.
A fun and effective project for kids and their grown ups is to build or add bird feeders and bee houses to the backyard.
“Creating habitat for birds and pollinators is a great way to attract them to your yard and help them survive,” Granberg says. “Children can collect and use pinecones or other recycled materials to build bird feeders. For pollinators, consider making or buying a bee hotel, which provides tunnels for bees to nest inside.”
Even though some of these steps might seem simplistic, they collectively make a big impact. It’s worth teaching our young citizens how to protect the spaces around them so that they can become stewards of the environment as they grow. As Granberg says, “doing these types of things will help ensure we have vibrant ecosystems filled with important and beautiful pollinators for future generations.”
By Laura Adams Boycourt
Photo of butterfly and bees on milkweed: Courtesy of Lise Dykes/CBF
Photo of students bird watching: Courtesy of Ronnie Anderson/CBF