EcoKids: Reaching Them Early
For the past two years I’ve volunteered for a local literacy program, helping kids in kindergarten and first grade who were struggling with their reading skills. I was able to select the school I volunteered at but, being new to Portland, I wasn’t familiar with or connected to any local schools. So I made my selection based on school name alone and chose a school that seemed to combine the two things closest to my heart- kids and environmental conservation. I started reading with kids at Sunnyside Environmental School and my eyes were opened to a whole new way of educating our children.
Naturally, the curricula at Sunnyside meets all the state standards for education but what is special is that it does so with a constant eye toward sustainability and social justice. These principles permeate everything they do at Sunnyside and they’re reflected in the kids, even the youngest among them.
This became obvious in the hour that I spent with my reading buddies each week. There were several hundred books from which the kids could choose, but it wasn’t uncommon for them to select books about animals or conservation. One day my reading pal, Trinity, a beautiful little first grader, asked me to read three books that she selected: Environments of Sharks, Legend of Martin Luther King and the Tragedy of the Exxon Valdez. That’s some pretty heavy reading for a six year old! But she seemed genuinely interested in each story and we had a great time talking about the messages that each held.
I was especially happy to talk with her about the Exxon Valdez oil spill since I was in Alaska shortly after the spill and observed the tragedy first hand. It was amazing how interested this little girl was in knowing about the animals and how some of them were rescued. We talked about how the oil seeped into the smallest crevices on the shore and about how the otters and waterfowl were drenched with the sticky sludge. We talked about how the accident happened and about the special people that took many months out of their lives to help in the clean-up effort. As she stroked the picture of the oil covered otter on the cover of the book and told me how sad it was, I knew that Sunnyside was doing a good thing.
There aren’t many schools out there that hold such a strong commitment to teaching kids about sustainability and environmental justice. Sunnyside is truly special. But there are a lot of ways that we can help our kids learn to respect the planet and become sensitive to the need to preserve, conserve and restore. Dan Chiras’ book, Eco-Kids: Raising Children Who Care for the Earth, is a great place for parents to start when it comes to teaching kids in a positive and inspiring way. There are also a whole host of kids’ games like Xeko, Family Pastimes and Beautiful Place that teach kids- even when they don’t know it!
So I guess my point is this…it’s never too early to start instilling the values of conservation, sustainability and social justice in our kids. In doing so, we will send them into the world well equipped to carry on the work that many of us have started.