How do you define sustainability? Some people think of it in political terms: encouraging farms and communities to take the long view in their methods of food production and transportation, ensuring we don’t decimate our soil and food supply, and preserving our environment for future generations. Some people think about sustainability in more personal terms: composting, shopping at a farmer’s market, or joining a community-supported agriculture program (CSA) to increase the sustainability of our food system.
When working with children in our camps and classes, we try to mention sustainability in the context of everything we cook, grow, and throw away. Because it’s such a global concept, however, we start small–by taking the word sustainability back to its roots, then working up to these big, abstract ideas over time. We also take special care to emphasize that even small kids can make a big impact when it comes to protecting our planet.
First, we note that this word, like many big words, is really two smaller words stuck together: sustain and ability. Since
ability is more familiar as a word and concept to kids, we start there. What is an ability? It means something you can do, kids will say. We ask: What special abilities do you have, particularly when it comes to helping others? Some kids will share that they help take care of siblings, pets, or plants, for example, or perform household chores. (During our summer camp, we also talk about classroom jobs we might have, like taking care of our worms by feeding them or our plants by putting them in the sun.)
Then, we tackle the word sustain. Sustain means “to keep going.” What would happen if we stopped taking care of our pets or our plants? Would they be able to keep going without our help? All heads shake vigorously: no. While some things will happen with or without our help–the sun will rise, the planet will turn–when it comes to taking care of plants and animals that depend on us, we have to make conscious choices about how we keep certain things going.
By choosing to keep our plants and animals going in thoughtful ways as chefs and gardeners, we explain, we can make sure that we have healthy, nutritious food to sustain (or support) our families and communities in the future. We invite kids to brainstorm a list of choices they can make along these lines: re-using food waste in a new recipe, for example, or giving the food scraps to our class worms or to a local composting outfit, so that they go back into the soil rather than into a landfill.
Sustainability, once they understand it, is often an easy sell for children: they tend to love taking care of things, and are often astonished to find that this is an idea requiring championing. The harder part is explaining that sometimes, people don’t know or don’t choose to keep our planet going in a healthy way, and that the consequences of certain poor choices can affect all of us.
If we do delve into the negative side of the sustainability conversation, we do so carefully. The idea that the sunny weather they enjoy may be a harbinger of runaway climate change, that their beloved happy meal hamburgers are responsible for the release of dangerous methane gases and the unjust monopolization of vital water sources, and that the plastic refuse from their picnics might end up endangering the dolphins they idolize from afar–well, it’s a lot to lay on a child who’s still not old enough to see the latest Star Wars. Enlisting the children in our lives in the causes that drive us as an adult is an understandable impulse, but we believe the developmental needs of our learners are even more important than our politics. Young children are easily frightened, in ways we can’t always anticipate, and even adults can become disheartened when confronted with problems without being given solutions.
Educator David Sobel calls this dynamic “ecophobia”: the creation of a sense of disconnectedness and helplessness when facing the world’s abstract ecological problems. He criticizes many well-intentioned (but developmentally inappropriate) messages aimed at children that promote it. This includes lessons and conversations that plunge young children into modern food controversies (i.e. the issues surrounding factory farming), without first providing them with a basic understanding of the foundational concepts of food (i.e., where it comes from, how it’s grown or made, and how molecules and microorganisms play a role in the above).
Sobel argues that we need to help young children to connect to the Earth before we ask them to be responsible for it. This is something that takes time, particularly for children who do not already have experience with gardening or hands-on cooking. It follows that children, particularly those under ten, deserve a chance to first meaningfully cultivate a fear-free relationship with food and environment via hands-on exploration. Pushing a learner to contemplate worldwide issues of sustainability and fairness beforehand is, ironically, a rather unfair thing for an adult to do to a child who is not ready for that.
So, we go slow. We return to the roots of the word. We emphasize ability, and we create a space for kids to develop their own ideas about how to help. As mentioned above, we take special care to emphasize that even small kids can make a big impact–by embracing their individual and collective abilities to keep our planet going.
Below are some ways children can do their part to make our food system more sustainable:
- Handling food waste mindfully. Even young children can be taught to sort materials into composting, recycling and landfill categories (and talking about the differences can spark great discussions). They can also take responsibility for carrying the compost to a collection center and the recycling to a grocery store deposit machine.
- Learning to grow a few plants at home, without pesticide, using organic soil or compost. Understanding how to grow and protect a plant using natural methods, which is no easy task, can be a memorable hands-on lesson that creates empathy and appreciation for the farmers who are choosing to do so at a large scale, protecting our bodies and planet even when it’s not the most profitable choice.
- Learning to cook mostly meat-free meals or sides from scratch, and to make smart use of the leftovers. Explain that this enables the family to spend more money on the relatively more expensive fruits and vegetables produced by these more responsible farmers, because they are throwing less food away. Note that farmers’ markets use little to no packaging for their products, making it even safer for the plants and animals with whom we share our world.
Written by Ryan Cherecwich, M. Ed
Wellness Educator and Assistant Camp Director
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