Raising Eco-Conscious Toddlers: Small Changes with Big Rewards

My daughter picks roses by the bud. She grabs the delicate petals furiously in her tiny hands and plucks them without any stem, hiding them behind her back and running to share them with me like she's holding the crown jewels.  

We have seven bushes around our home. I planted them when she was little and had every intention to cultivate them into flowering beauties that she could see from her bedroom window. Yet, they sat barren all spring, summer, and autumn long because every time one would spring a new bloom, her beautiful sea blue eyes would light up and she'd hurry to pluck it.

At first, I was frustrated and slightly annoyed that we'd paid that expensive landscaping fee only to have our efforts thwarted by a three-year-old. Then, I started to think how absolutely beautiful it was that she wanted to run headfirst into nature. She absolutely had to have those flowers and she waited for them with a patience and excitement that most adults can only hope to have.

She's only a toddler now, and pretty soon she'll realize that rose bushes are for admiring. She'll learn that you don't sit in fields of clover and run your fingers through every tiny stalk. It's probably wise not to lie in the garden dirt, with its bugs and weeds, and look up at the clouds. 

Or is it? I think that as her parent, I have an incredible privilege. I can help her capture this love of nature and hold onto it. She doesn't have to lose it just because she grows up and her imagination shifts course. I fervently believe that little girls who save granddaddy longlegs, comb the ground for fallen pecans shaken loose from a storm, and jump in leaf piles without abandon become women who are vocal about and active in caring for our environment.

So how can I start today? How can I make sure I don't mess this one up? I can think of three ways that take very little effort on all of our parts but can make a really big impact over the course of a lifetime. Let's explore.

1. Take them to the environmental center.  Almost every major city will have some environmental or nature center. Though our tiny, one-stoplight town is sadly missing one, the nearest one is only 15 minutes away in the city. I took my daughter when she was a newborn, but until recently, we hadn't been back. These past few months, since she's gotten more independent and her brother is more sure-footed, I've felt comfortable bringing them back and it makes me wonder why we ever hesitated to return.

We stroll the trails together, pick up every single rock we see (literally every one), and collect leaves to press into our books later. It's truly magical and some of my most favorite memories of them are made underneath the towering oak trees lining the path to our favorite little stream where rouge deer like to meander. 

2. Teach them to reuse and recycle. Confession. I didn't recycle when I was growing up. My parents didn't exactly prioritize it and I never understood the consequences of that until much later. Now, I'm doing my best to make sure my children are raised in an environment of very little waste. Not only do we recycle, but we also give away unused clothing, conserve water wherever possible, and try to eliminate as much waste as we can. We also talk openly about ways we can cut down on our energy use in an effort to combat global warming

A side note: I never appreciated the expansive set of Fiestaware my uncle curated for me over the course of my adolescence until I was married with kids. Now, we're able to forego paper or plastic plates and drinkware in favor of colorful, washable plates and cups that are as fun as they are festive. I'm showing my children that caring for the environment doesn't just happen outdoors. It happens in our kitchens, our bedrooms, and our bathrooms as well.

3. Grow a garden. Whether you're in an urban setting or out in the country, this one is do-able and promoting sustainable agriculture is more important now than ever before. This year, my children helped my husband and I plant squash, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. My daughter would run out the side door every morning to check on the bounty, yelling back at me, "Come on garden girl! Let's see what we got!" We'd pick through the produce and nibble as we went along. She got her nails dirty pulling weeds and had her first taste of a cherry tomato straight from the vine. "Mama! This is candy!" she exclaimed as she grabbed another handful. 

We had such a great experience with that first family garden that we've planted a fall/winter one in the same spot. Now, we're harvesting cabbage, broccoli, kale and salad greens, and let me just tell you, if you haven't heard a toddler say "butter crunch lettuce" you're missing out. She's eating from the earth, learning where food comes from, and developing an appreciation for everything homegrown.

These are just a few tiny steps. They won't change much but they'll do something very significant if you're purposeful about them. They'll plant a seed. All it takes is one tiny moment to cement itself inside your babies, and they'll learn to treat the earth a little kinder, a little gentler. They might still yank your prized blooms as soon as they open, but they'll do it with love. Let's start today, parents, and raise an entire generation of "garden girls and boys."