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How to bring children into the sustainability conversation
Philly

How to bring children into the sustainability conversation

Several organizations in Philadelphia make sustainability easy, even for children. Here’s how to utilize these resources.

On the surface, sustainability may look like it’s only attainable for certain kinds of folks–those with means, time, and a sense of ennui that keeps nudging them to do more. However, adopting a lifestyle that reduces harm isn’t as impractical as it may seem.

That’s why it’s important to bring children into the sustainability conversation. Philadelphia has quite a few organizations with initiatives geared towards educating and empowering children to protect the earth.

Ross Weintraud, a ninth-grade science teacher at Olney Charter High School explains that in his school, “We don’t have a ton of kids that come in with the mindset of Greta Thunberg.” Teachers like him make it their mission to inspire the children who will be burdened most by climate change. He says that children can’t ignore the ways that they’re impacted on a local level, even when it comes to clean water.

“I really am the one having to bring it up for them,” he expresses. “We’re in a 90-year-old building, and the plumbing is a mess. We’ve had to install those units that do the extreme filtration, just so the kids can have clean water for drinking every day. So we definitely get into it as part of our conversation.”

Enlighten Them About Their Surroundings

Weintraud’s point aligns with the fact that children often can’t see outside of their circumstances. Yes, we also should be striving to save the planet, but the concept of a “planet” may not resonate with a child. However, children know their own city and their own neighborhoods. They see litter strewn across the sidewalks, and they may see the tall grass surrounding an abandoned property.

While it may not seem cool or even safe to do a neighborhood clean-up, programs can put these children around others with the same goal of beautifying their streets. Sometimes they may need to see what that could look like to see the promise in their own neighbors.

Luckily, Philadelphia is the mural capital of the country, with over 3,600 murals. Oftentimes, they pop up in communities that lack beauty in other ways through Mural Arts, and they accompany a community garden or past cleanup effort.

Show Them Ways They are Already Helping

Children may not know the impact of recycling, and that is often a great place to start. A lesson about the impact of plastics on our oceans, mentioning the various animals that are harmed by garbage getting into the oceans may encourage them to be more mindful of where they throw their trash, and it could keep them on top of their recycling.

Point out other ways that they are saving the environment, like reusing plastic shopping bags for garbage or dog waste, or how grandma reuses glass jars.

Get Children Out in Nature

Philadelphia has an unlimited supply of green space, and in most neighborhoods, there’s a park for those who want to sit in the grass. Not only is being in nature grounding, but it can facilitate an appreciation for the earth. Unfortunately, in some parts of the city, parks may not always be safe. In those times, one of the many nature preserves or gardens may be a better fit.

The Wissahickon Trail has days’ worth of lessons and hiking, though it isn’t easy to get to by public transportation. Bertram’s Garden carves out 50 acres of foliage in Southwest Philadelphia and could be a great reprieve from the urban jungles just blocks away. FDR Park is another solid option since it’s right by the stadiums and easy to get to.

Organizations like Soil Generation are working to bring green space to neighborhoods that lack them. The goal is to reconnect Black and Brown families with the land, either through teaching about gardening or by helping someone start their own garden.

Studies show that community gardens help boost morale and improve the overall wellbeing of the neighborhood. That’s why helping children to create and appreciate what they grow can help them to bond with nature and be grounded in the earth.

Take Them Out on the Water

In order to appreciate watersheds, groups like Let’s Go Outdoors, which has a subcontract with the Philadelphia Water Department, teach kids about their waterways through hands-on experiences. According to President/CEO Tarsha Scovens, “We gets kids learning about their waterways through providing interactive watershed education lessons at various district of Philadelphia schools, as well as at local fairs. In addition, we offer watershed walks for school, youth and local groups, which happen along neighborhood blocks, in schoolyards and at historic creeks or local waterways.”

Scovens explains that Let’s Go Outdoors is able to get children engaged this way, and that there are numerous ways to do so. For her organization, she states, “Depending on the program, we may utilize an Enviroscape model, arts and crafts activities, water lessons, and/or opportunities to canoe/kayak and fish in our local waterways.”

Some children may be hesitant to participate in such activities if they are afraid of water and don’t know how to swim. Swim lessons at a local YMCA or other low-cost programs may be effective in helping these children become more comfortable with being next to the water.

Make Sustainability Easy

Instead of wasting a million plastic bottles, investing in a quality reusable water bottle that clips to a backpack not only encourages children to drink more, but it cuts back on waste. A stylish one with a child’s name on it or favorite character is sure to be a favorite.

Another valuable tool is reusing paper towels after handwashing. Instead of immediately throwing them away, taking the time to wipe off a surface in the kitchen or bathroom can eliminate the use of one later. Purchasing hand towels can reduce the need for constantly throwing away paper towels.

Use Your Privilege 

If there aren’t initiatives in certain communities or plans for a cleanup, use your privilege to figure out how to get one started. Donate money to help organizations to continue to thrive or to expand their reach. Use your resources or volunteer your time to create equity in the communities, which oftentimes, are less than a mile from an area that costs a lot more to live in.

Some organizations center the unique needs of that community, whether that’s liberation or building equity. That’s the business of the Urban Creators, which according to their website, “is a platform for radical and collaborative imagination.” Urban Creators works to create equity in underserved communities, not only helping them plant gardens, but cleaning up vacant lots to do so, and even using abandoned tires as planters.

The food that is grown may be given out within the communities, closing the gap with food deserts in the city. Volunteering your time with organizations like this help to keep the needs of underserved communities front and center, since sustainability efforts can often take a backseat to the need for survival and safety.

The bottom line for creating an urgency and a desire to give back for children in all communities is to equal the playing field for them, meeting them where they are and growing their knowledge from there.

Broke in Philly
Broke in Philly is a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Green Philly is one of more than 20 news organizations in the collective. Follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

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Tonya Russell covers mental health, culture, and wellness. She is an avid runner, yogi, and traveler, and she resides in the Philadelphia area with her four fur babies and fiancé. Follow her on Instagram (@_ajourneytofit_) and Twitter (@thetonyarussell). View all posts by Tonya Russell

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