When I was a third grader at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee, I participated in the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Lest you think events like Earth Day don’t impact children and youth, this very first Earth Day opened my eyes to why we all need to take care of the one home we all share.
I remember the bright blue and green posters hung along the halls of my school, but what I remember most is the short field trip we took that crisp and sunny April day. It was a field trip of only a few city blocks, but it shocked me into realizing how badly people in my community had trashed our natural environment.
Passing neat brick houses and well kept yards in our small city, we stopped by a creek running through the neighborhood. Trash covered every single surface of both banks of the creek. It was appalling, disgusting, shocking. I remember my friends and I were frightened, as well. Thousands of the old “pop-top” aluminum can lids littered the banks of the creek, and we were afraid to take a step, knowing how these razor sharp lids could easily take off a toe or a finger.
It was a moment of personal experience for the care of the earth. I lived in a chemical plant’s company town, and we knew the smokestacks belched out toxins we all breathed in. But the company paid virtually everyone’s paychecks, and there was nothing we as third graders could do about this powerful source of pollution. But the trash covering the banks of the creek running through the middle of town was a sin of a personal nature – every single one of us could take actions to keep trash out of the creek and off the ground.
Decades later, in writing resources to lead children and youth in creation care, I came across research saying that “shock” tactics such as this field trip to the creek are not necessarily effective in promoting environmentalism. Research shows that developing a sense of awe and wonderment for the beauty of nature is much more helpful. If a child learns to love one small bit of the natural world, he or she will likely grow up to love and want to take care of all of nature.
I think it takes both shock and awe to learn to take care of the earth. We all need a kick in the tail occasionally to get us to face difficult situations. But children also need time and space to play, have fun, and become comfortable in the natural world.
Many of us growing up in the late 1960’s and 70’s had that blissful, unplugged time and space in nature to develop this sense of awe and wonder. I spent hours upon hours using a magnolia tree in my backyard as my own personal “fort” – a play activity enjoyed by children all over the world since time immemorial. One of the most fun times I had as a Girl Scout was setting up our very own “camp” – carving out our own special place in the forest for our small band of girls, setting up seating areas and tables, making it feel secure and comfortable. We experienced the magic of playing outdoors in an unstructured environment, with little supervision, allowed to let our imaginations run wild.
I hope children you know will get to have a magical time in nature, too. I hope all children will get to play in the woods and use their imaginations to turn tree stumps into chairs and tables and turn magnolia trees into comfortable playhouses. I hope we all, someday, live in world where the environment gives us a sense of awe, not shock.
Cynthia Coe is the author of Wild Faith: A Creation Care Curriculum for Youth and Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us. For news of upcoming publications and for blog posts, please follow this blog or her author page on Amazon.