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  • Writer's picturePete Salmansohn

Navigating a path amidst children's eco-anxiety

Updated: Sep 17, 2021

I recently saw on our neighborhood Facebook pages several photographs of a mock funeral march and event for planet earth and its threatened animals and plants, along the main street of a nearby town. Good deal, I thought, to use the power of street theatre to call attention to our ecological challenges. Some of the adults, dressed mostly in black, were carrying a large dark plywood coffin with the words “Act Now” painted on the sides. A somber parade of sign-carrying others followed them. But then I noticed photos of young kids, also holding signs saying “RIP for the Oceans,” and “RIP for Insects”, and “Give Earth A Chance”, as well as with posters showing photos and images of animals, and the words “extinct” next to them. Not good, I thought, not good at all. Let’s please not put the sad and overwhelming burden of saving the earth on the sensitive and impressionable hearts and minds of children, especially those under the age of perhaps 12 or 13 when they typically do not have the power of abstract thought and the ability to see a problem with perspective. Having one’s seven or eight-year-old take part in a funeral march for mother earth, in my opinion, is the work of well-meaning but mis-guided parents, and it may ultimately be self-sabotaging.

Seeing this event reminded me of the wise and prescient words of my old Antioch professor, and environmental education visionary, David Sobel, who wrote a 40 page booklet/essay on the very same theme, which he called “Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education,” and which suggested that teachers and adults were giving young kids too much alarming information, such as the burning of tropical rainforests, and then asking them to essentially weigh in on this and take some action. He cited research which showed that these attempts to get young children involved in environmental issues were actually backfiring in the form of apathy and depression. He suggested, instead, that educators give children lots of time in the outdoors, playing and bonding with nature, exploring at will, getting muddy and dirty, and thus slowly developing a sense of place and an appreciation for the natural world. In other words, before you ask someone to save something, they have to take the time to know it and love it. And developmentally, children under the age of around 11 or so are set up for experience, exploration, and play and not for taking on crisis or tragedy.

Excellent advice, and something that many environmental educators, including myself, have taken as a philosophical and pedagogical guide.

In early February, the Washington Post Magazine published a major essay entitled “The Environmental Burdens of Generation Z: Kids are terrified, anxious, and depressed about climate change. Whose fault is that?” Journalist Jason Plautz essentially asks three key questions:

“As climate change continues unabated, parents, teachers and medical professionals across the country find themselves face-to-face with a quandary: How do you raise a generation to look toward the future with hope when all around them swirls a message of apparent hopelessness? How do you prepare today’s children for a world defined by environmental trauma without inflicting more trauma yourself? And where do you find the line between responsible education and undue alarmism?”

Difficult, intense and confrontational questions, I think, and even more difficult to answer, especially since educators and parents are dealing with children of different ages and grade levels, and varying sensitivities. There is no one answer, obviously, though common sense would seem to dictate proceeding cautiously and carefully.

This exact conversation is coming up right now for our local school community in planning a “youth climate summit” for mid-May, whereupon teams of interested middle-schoolers from perhaps 10 different regional institutions will convene for a full day of activities, discussions, films, and plans for taking action. Our committee is leaning heavily at this point on hopeful, interactive, hands-on workshops like:

*Learning about our town’s scientific study on where local carbon emissions are coming from, and how we can help reduce that.

*How to do Composting and why it’s important.

*How to Help Pollinators by planting native species, and building bee houses.

*Why our lunch today is vegetarian and how to make wise food choices.

*Learning about the nationally-based Sunrise Movement - “Young people united to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process.”

*A writing workshop to help put one’s thoughts and feelings on paper.

*What are the challenges that indigenous populations are having, and how can we help.

*Watching video of successful environmental projects, from “Young Voices for the Planet.”

We’re attempting to design this climate summit with a healthy dose of oxygen, informality, student-requested workshops, and fun, and even then, we may be making some mistakes in terms of reading students’ emotional and intellectual stages and capacities. What the ultimate take-away will be for perhaps one hundred and twenty 6th, 7th, and 8th graders is unknown, but probably much better for our committee to err on the side of empowerment, immediate social networking, and local actions than to spend too much time on the dark side………………

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