I get a lot of questions from people who want to teach their kids environmental stewardship and my advice is to get them passionate about the nature around them. Distant wildlife is exciting and cool! It can teach them to appreciate, but I find it rarely teaches them to value.
Value and respect come from recognizing your place in nature and your ability to both help and hurt.
Go outside and just move some rocks and let them hold some worms. Let them get muddy. If they squash a bug, ask them why. Tell them the bugs live here too.
This sounds silly, but it’s tried and true. Each time I’ve seen a kid smash a bug, I say “why did you feel that bug wasn’t allowed to be alive?” Never in an accusing tone, never judgmental. Ask them gently, honestly. They might be dismissive and bashful at first, but if you ask them again, if you say “I like bugs, and I think it’s good that they are alive,” they start to think. You can see it happen. You can see them begin to consider life they’ve probably been told before doesn’t mater.
Tell them what you like about bugs. If you’re afraid of bugs, tell them that too. tell them “I find them a little scary, but this is why they’re still good.” Tell them they don’t have to like something for it to have value. Tell them even the things they don’t like have value.
Every time a child says they’re afraid of bugs, or dirt, we go outside, and I find a worm (most people react best to them because they don’t have a bunch of little legs), and I hold it and tell them some simple little facts. I ask them if they want to hold it. They almost always do. It’s okay if they don’t want to. Never force the interaction. It’s vital to form positive experiences and associations.
I wipe some mud on my hands. I ask them if they want some mud on their hands. If they do, I give them some mud. I tell them what worms are doing down their in the ground, which anyone can learn on google to share.
We move rocks and find beetles and spiders. They’re delicate, so we don’t pick them up. We watch them. I ask them what they imagine beetles think about all day, and they always make me laugh with their ideas. I tell them “maybe, maybe that’s what beetles think about.” Let them imagine.
Look up the birds where you live. Yes, even the “boring” ones like pigeons and sparrows. Talk about what the eat, where they go at night to sleep. Ask them where they think birds sleep. In beds like us? They’ll usually tell you no, in trees! Kids want to teach as much as they want to learn.
We talk about grass and trees. We talk about what makes the world alive. Their young minds change and make new decisions about how they want to exist in the world.
One day, if all goes well, value and respect grow into a sense of responsibility and obligation.
Do this again and again.
If a child asks, and you don’t know, tell them “let’s find out together.” Search on your phone.
You don’t have to know much yourself to teach stewardship. You only have to know and teach that it’s important to be curious, and above all, to root your curiosity in kindness.