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Raising children’s environmental awareness

Pollution, drought, forest fires, melting glaciers... How can we educate young children about protecting the environment without being alarmist? Doing simple things is often enough.

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How to talk to kids about the environment (without scaring them)

It’s hard not to worry when we hear about climate change, forest fires, droughts, melting glaciers, and other natural disruptions. But how do you talk to your little one about the environment without scaring them?

It’s hard not to worry when we hear about climate change, forest fires, droughts, melting glaciers, and other natural disruptions. But how do you talk to your little one about the environment without scaring them?

Like many parents, Bouchra Taïbi wonders what kind of world her 4-year-old, Emile Omar, will live in. “How will climate change impact people? I also think of my son’s children, if he has any. When they grow up, will there be any green space left, any forests?” However, she’s careful not to pass her fears on to her son. “It’s important for me to educate him about protecting the environment. But I want it to be something positive. He’s too young to carry the weight of saving the planet on his shoulders.”

It’s best to avoid being alarmist when talking to a child about the environment. “Addressing the topic by emphasizing the dangers is likely to frighten them and cause them to feel anxious,” says psychologist Joe Flanders. “Also, the issue of climate change is too complex for a young child to understand.”

Eco-anxiety is a term that refers to persistent worries about environmental issues. These days, the worrisome state of our planet receives a lot of attention in the media. Consequently, more and more people—even children—are suffering from this type of anxiety. A young child who is eco-anxious may have problems sleeping, or may be sad, agitated, aggressive, or withdrawn. “It affects their well-being and impairs their ability to function well in their daily lives,” says Joe.

If you’re experiencing eco-anxiety, his advice is to learn to live with uncertainty while maintaining a certain degree of optimism. One way to do this is to take concrete actions to protect the environment. Acting in accordance with your values can help you feel better.

Are young children worried?
In a survey conducted by Naître et grandir and Équiterre, 25% of parents said that the future of the planet worries their child. Similarly, 35% stated that their child asks a lot of questions about the environment and pollution. However, the majority of parents (77%) said that their child doesn’t suffer feel anxious about environmental issues. For more results, read our article on the survey (link in French), which was conducted among 1,000 parents of children aged 2 to 8 in Quebec.

Focus on the positives

How can you educate your little one about the environment without causing them to worry? Catherine Gauthier, Executive Director of ENvironnement JEUnesse, suggests doing it in a positive and concrete way. “Rather than talking to them about environmental issues, show them small, everyday things we can do to help nature.”

That’s the approach Meika Palmer has taken with her 3-year-old Léo and 6-month-old Félix. “For example, I taught my eldest to turn the tap on just a little when he washes his hands, because water is precious. I also taught him to be mindful of the amount of toilet paper he uses, because it’s made from trees.”

Of course, it’s essential to lead by example. “Children learn by imitation,” says Murielle Vrins, Project Manager at Équiterre. “When parents make an effort to reduce their environmental impact, their children get used to doing the same.” For example, at the grocery store, a parent can explain to their child that they’re choosing a particular product because it has less plastic packaging.

Living with nature

Mélanie Leblanc-Chénier and her sons, 7-year-old Zachary and 3-year-old Kane, go tent camping regularly, except in winter. “I want my sons to love and respect nature,” says the single mom. “It’s a core value for me.”

To teach a child about the importance of preserving the environment, experiences in nature are essential. “The idea is for them to develop a connection and an emotional bond with the living world,” explains Barbara Bader, a professor in the faculty of education at Université Laval and the chair of leadership in science education and sustainable development. “Frequent contact with nature allows your child to learn to love it. Later on, they’ll want to protect it, too. Young children are naturally full of wonder and curiosity. Insects, trees, plants, and birds are beautiful, intriguing, and alive.”

There are ways to experience nature without leaving the city. “Playing outside, walking, biking, or having a picnic in a park are all ways to connect with the environment, as long as there are trees,” adds Barbara.

Planting a vegetable garden or growing herbs in pots is another way to feel closer to nature. “We grow beans, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, ground cherries, and even kiwis,” says Éric Bazinet, father of 6-year-old Maëlie, 4-year-old Léamée, and 1-year-old Alexim. “It helps the kids realize that fruits and vegetables come from the earth, from trees or plants. And they love to pick them!”

Should you talk to your kids about natural disasters?
To avoid upsetting your child, don’t show them images and videos of natural disasters like floods, fires, and tornadoes. “It’s also best not to talk to them about such events unless they bring them up themselves or have seen images,” says psychologist Joe Flanders. “If that’s the case, simply explain what happened without going into detail. Emphasize that many people will work together to help those affected.”

20 things you can do for the environment

Does your family want to do more to take care of our planet? Here are some accessible and inexpensive ideas to help you get started, one step at a time.

By Nathalie Vallerand

Does your family want to do more to take care of our planet? Here are some accessible and inexpensive ideas to help you get started, one step at a time.

(This article was written before the pandemic. Some of the ideas listed can’t be done right now, but they’ll be useful someday!)

1. Buy fewer toys. Kids don’t need a ton of toys. It’s also better to buy fewer plastic toys because they’re difficult to recycle. For example, Meika Palmer borrows toys from a toy library. “That gives my kids a variety of toys. so they never get bored,” she says. You can also find used toys online or in second-hand stores.

2. Compost. “I don’t have to tell my boys to put their apple cores in the compost bin,” says Mélanie Leblanc-Chénier. “They know that table scraps don’t go in the trash.” Composting reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the compost produced can be used to enrich soil.

3. Before buying anything, ask yourself: Does our family really need this?” “Protecting the environment also means reducing overconsumption,” says Barbara Bader, a professor and researcher in environmental education. There are benefits to buying quality items and maintaining them. It’s also a good idea to ask yourself if an item can be repaired before you simply throw it away and replace it.

4. Drink tap water. The production of plastic water bottles causes pollution and uses a lot of fossil fuels. And even if the bottles are recyclable, they often end up in landfills.

5. Cook more. “It’s a great activity to do as a family,” says Murielle Vrins of Équiterre. “Buying less prepared food also reduces packaging.” Another suggestion: make homemade baby food.

6. Use recycled materials for drawing and doing crafts. Toilet paper and paper towel cores, sheets of paper that are printed on one side only, cardboard boxes, aluminum plates . . . “Your recycling bin is full of treasures for your child’s craft projects,” says Catherine Gauthier of ENvironnement JEUnesse.

7. Reduce food waste. The average family throws away about 140 kilograms of food per year. That amounts to over $1,100. When you throw away less food, you’re doing something good for the environment and saving money.

8. Replace baby wipes with washcloths. “To moisten them, keep a spray bottle filled with water close at hand,” suggests Murielle Vrins. Use a rag to clean up your baby’s little messes. You can turn cotton clothes that are stained or too worn out to be donated into rags.

9. Walk or bike whenever possible. Using your car less is a good way to fight climate change, as personal vehicles are believed to account for about 22 percent of GHG emissions in Quebec. For example, Meika does most of her shopping on foot, with baby Félix in his stroller. She also walks to work.

10. At the grocery store, opt for large-format sizes over individual portions, which use more packaging. But beware of food waste if it’s a perishable product! If possible, choose products with packaging made of a single material (e.g., cardboard), because it’s easier to recycle.

11. Show your child how to identify recyclable items. Place a small recycling bin in the kitchen, for example, so that your little one can put plastic packaging, paper, cardboard, etc. in it on their own.

12. Buy in bulk whenever possible. This is another way to reduce overpackaging. “I recently started buying certain items in bulk, like bubble bath products, laundry detergent, and peanut butter,” says Mélanie. “Changing your habits isn’t always easy, so I’m taking things one product at a time.”

13. Eat less meat. This is a practice that Catherine Delorme, mother of Maëlie, Léamée, and Alexim, has adopted. “Raising livestock has a really negative impact on the environment,” she says. “That’s why we’ve partially replaced meat with legumes. My girls love my spaghetti with lentils!”

14. Use cloth diapers. To reduce the large number of disposable diapers that end up in landfills, many cities offer subsidies for the purchase of reusable diapers. Cloth diapers require a lot of water and energy to maintain, but because the hydroelectricity we have in Quebec doesn’t produce a lot of pollution, they’re a good choice for the environment. They can also be used for more than one child.

15. Don’t offer goody bags at your child’s birthday party. In any case, the little toys they tend to contain quickly end up in the trash. “At my son Leo’s party, I replaced the goody bags with a craft activity, and the kids took their creations home,” says Meika. It’s also best to avoid disposable dishes.

Motivated parents
According to the results of a survey conducted by Naître et grandir and Équiterre, 81 percent of parents say they’re motivated to take action to protect the environment. In addition, 66 percent of them say they’re aware of the concrete actions that can be taken to do so. They feel that the most important ones are to recycle and compost (72 percent), avoid waste (62 percent), and bring your own containers and bags (47 percent). For more results, see our article on the survey (link in French) we conducted among 1,000 parents of children aged 2 to 8 in Quebec.

16. Lower the temperature in your home. At night or during the day when no one is present, lower the temperature by 3°C. This will reduce your energy consumption and help you save on heating costs.

17. Use public transportation. In a large city, a bus takes up less space and carries passengers more efficiently than if each person were in a car. If there’s no public transit system in your area, consider carpooling.

18. Consume local, seasonal fruits and vegetables. There’s some debate about the definition and impact of buying local, but experts agree that eating local, in-season produce is better for the environment. And it’s even better if it’s organically grown!

19. Get involved in your community! If you’d like to go beyond individual actions and team up with your friends and neighbours, there are many opportunities to get involved in protecting the environment in your community. You could, for example, participate in cleaning up a riverbank or get involved in a parents’ committee. Don’t hesitate to let your elected officials know that you’re concerned about the environment.

20. Pass it on. “When I was a child, my parents, who were very poor, dressed me in used clothing out of economic necessity,” says Bouchra Taïbi. “Today, I do the same thing with my son, but out of ecological necessity. One of my co-workers gives me clothes that no longer fit her son, and when my son outgrows them, I pass them on to another mom.” The same principle can be applied to all children’s items that are in good condition. Éric Bazinet gets a lot of things for his kids from friends or online classifieds. “Before buying new stuff, I see what I can find used,” says the father of Maëlie, Léamée, and Alexim.

COVID-19 and the environment: How has it impacted the efforts families are making?

In the ongoing pandemic, is protecting the environment still a priority for families? If so, what challenges are they facing?

By Nathalie Vallerand

COVID-19 has turned families’ daily lives upside down: the struggle to find work-life balance, concerns for children’s health and development, parental stress, and fatigue have taken their toll. As the pandemic goes on, is protecting the environment still a priority for families? What challenges are they facing?

“I already knew that I had to do my part to protect the environment, but the pandemic and the lockdown only reinforced my convictions,” says Mélanie Leblanc-Chénier, mother of two boys. “We need to take care of nature.”

Like her, 90% of those who participated in the fall 2020 Baromètre de l’action climatique survey said they wanted to take action on climate change, and 78% said they wanted to do more. While we’ve seen some environmental improvements since the beginning of the pandemic, there have also been setbacks.

The positives

More time spent in nature. Since many activities have been put on hold, families have rediscovered the joys of playing outside, going for walks, visiting big parks, gardening, and more. “When we have positive experiences in nature, we feel more compelled to preserve it,” says Catherine Gauthier, Executive Director of ENvironnement JEUnesse.

A desire to buy local. More people are consuming local products (60% in 2020 versus 55% in 2019, according to the Baromètre survey). Many, like Mélanie, are also making an effort to shop at local businesses. “I never used to pay attention to where products were made when I shopped online. Now, I always check. Whenever possible, and if there’s no big price difference, I choose products made in Quebec. I also try to shop on Quebec-based websites.” In addition to helping Quebec businesses survive the crisis, buying local helps reduce pollution caused by transporting goods.

More home cooking. “Because I’m working from home, I have more time to cook,” says Meika Palmer, mother of two boys. “For example, I make my own pizza instead of buying it frozen. It tastes better, and there’s less packaging.” Families have never cooked as much as they have in recent months, but that also means more food is wasted at home, according to one survey conducted by the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. However, there is some good news: 34% of households are eating leftovers more often, and 22% are freezing or canning their leftovers. Given that food production, packaging, and transportation requires water and generates pollution, it’s important to throw away as little food as possible.

What’s the Baromètre de l’action climatique?
The Baromètre de l’action climatique is an annual survey that aims to assess Quebecers’ level of commitment to fighting climate change. The survey was conducted online in September 2020. In total, 2,003 individuals 18 years and over participated. The Baromètre is an initiative of the Laboratoire de l’action climatique, a collaboration between a research team from Université Laval and Unpointcinq, a web-based climate action media organization.

More sustainable childcare centres. The number of childcare centres that are certified sustainable by ENVironnement JEUnesse increased from 48 in 2019 to 62 in 2020. This means that more young children are being made aware of the need to respect the environment. Creating a vegetable garden, making soap, and organizing a zero waste picnic are examples of activities organized in sustainable childcare centres.

Less air travel. With the tightening of borders and the implementation of more stringent health measures, air travel has decreased significantly. Disappointed travellers can take comfort in the fact that they have unwillingly helped give the environment a break. Reducing air travel is one of the four actions that have the greatest positive impact on climate change. The other three are composting, eating less meat, and reducing your car usage.

The negatives

Too much driving. Few Quebecers are interested in reducing their use of gas-powered vehicles. According to the Baromètre de l’action climatique, only 31% of people intend to make an effort to do so—down from 34% in 2019. It doesn’t look like this is going to change anytime soon: the number of vehicles on Quebec roads increased by 100,000 in 2020, according to the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec. Furthermore, the pandemic has prompted many households to leave the city and find a home in the country or a distant suburb. “Outside of major metropolises, car dependency is increasing because there are few local services,” says Colleen Thorpe, Executive Director of Équiterre.

More disposable products. The use of disposable items has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Just think of the single-use containers your takeout meals are delivered in. Not to mention the colossal quantities of masks, gloves, and visors that are thrown away and difficult to recycle. “Many of these objects end up in nature. It’s quite worrisome,” says Colleen.

More boxes and packaging. The health crisis has caused online sales to surge. As a result, garbage and recycling bins are overflowing with boxes and packaging. This is clearly bad for the environment, especially since not all packaging gets recycled. Will consumers continue to shop as much online after the pandemic? “Once habits have been formed, they can be difficult to break,” says Colleen. “Unfortunately, online shopping often comes at the expense of local businesses.”

What’s next?

For the past year, the entire planet has mobilized to fight COVID-19. “The crisis we’re all experiencing has shown us that we can adapt and change our habits,” says Colleen. “It has proven that we’re also capable of making changes to protect the environment.”

Meika believes that protecting the environment should be viewed as a major social project. “The next crisis will be an environmental one,” she says. “Everyone needs to do their part—individuals and companies alike. We need strong government leaders to deal with this issue. We’re always stronger when we work together.”

 

Things to keep in mind
  • Avoid talking to your child about the dangers of climate change so they don’t worry. Instead, encourage them to do outdoor activities like walking, gardening, and insect watching.
  • You can raise your child’s environmental awareness by taking concrete actions yourself, such as donating used clothes and toys, cooking at home, composting, driving less, and more.
  • You can also involve your little one in some eco-activities, like recycling and composting.

 

Naître et grandir

Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Claude Villeneuve, full professor and director, Chair in Eco-Consulting, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi
April 2020 and 2021

 

USEFUL LINKS AND RESOURCES

Online

Carbone boréal – Calculate your carbon footprint and more
carbonboreal.uqac.ca

ENvironnement JEUnesse
enjeu.qc.ca

Équiterre
equiterre.org

François Bellefeuille: 3.7 planètes
A French-language podcast in which comedian François Bellefeuille investigates how to reduce his ecological footprint.
ici.radio-canada.ca/ohdio

Unpointcinq
Bébé décarbo-né – A French-only special feature on how to reduce your baby’s carbon footprint
unpointcinq.ca/dossiers

Viens manger! Le végétarisme en toute simplicité (French food guide and recipes)
nutrition.umontreal.ca

 

Books for kids

Crausaz, Anne. Bon voyage petite goutte. Memo, 2010, 36 pp.

Tucker, Zoë, and Zoe Persico. Greta and the Giants. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2019, 32 pp.

Oldland, Nicholas. Big Bear Hug. Kids Can Press, 2020, 32 pp.

Oldland, Nicholas. The Busy Beaver. Kids Can Press, 2011, 32 pp.

Delaunois, Angèle, and Philippe Béha. Je suis écolo! Éditions de l’Isatis, 2020, 32 pp.

Cole, Henry. One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey. Scholastic Canada, 2020, 48 pp.

Spinelli, Eileen, and Rogério Coelho. One Earth. WorthyKids, 2020, 32 pp.

 

Photos (in order): Nicolas St-Germain, GettyImages/monkeybusinessimages and nazar_ab, Maxim Morin, Isa René de Cotret, Maxim Morin