When Does Environmental Stewardship Start?

On a Saturday in mid-September, I was at large event for work. It was an event I organized. There were at least 125 people in attendance, probably more.  It was an event to celebrate land conservation hosted by our local land trust and promoted by the state governing body of land trusts.  It even was filmed to be broadcast next spring on the public broadcasting channel locally.  While I am proud of how the event came off, this post is not about its success.

Three-year-old Environmental Stewards?

It is about a comment or caption I saw. The comment was made in reaction to a photograph of a young boy – three years old – enjoying nature and all it has to offer. He attended the event with his parents and is soon to have a sibling. The comment had to do with this little boy being the next generation of environmental stewards. It any case it gave me pause.

Hmmm. I had the following thoughts. Maybe, this little boy would continue to grow, participate in nature, and love the land like he exhibited at this event.

Or, maybe not. The fact is we just don’t know.

Through my own work with children for the last thirty-five years, and through experiences with my own children, I know we cannot count on the fact that this toddler will continue to love being on hikes, collecting bugs, or chasing butterflies. He’ll grow and change; we do know that for sure.

“What happens next is critical….and, maybe, not even enough to grow the interest in nature.”

We used to call our youngest son, now eighteen years old,  “Mr. DNR!” DNR in Wisconsin might stand for Do Not Rescuitatie as the abbreviation is used in most places, but also the Department of Natural Resources. It was this second definition of the acronym that we were referring to when calling our son Mr. DNR. He was wild about nature. When he was very young and we went to our cabin – which he has known his whole life – he would hunt endlessly for toads the minute it became dusk. It was a ritual. Round and round the exterior foundation cabin we’d go until we had checked all the places we found frogs and toads on previous visits.  Or, until we caught one to keep only long enough to be a temporary friend, let go before the night ended and bedtime arrived.

He was only 18 months old when I started raising monarch butterflies for the first time. Yes, that was 2003!  He was taught to watch the metamorphosis, hold, and release the butterflies from a very young age.



When the Florida Keys for the first time at the age of 9, a stingray swam up and stared him down, right in the shallow waters off of Bahia Honda State Park.  He’s been to Hawaii and seen the multi-colored state fish, humu humu nuku nuku apua’a.  Both of these encountered were fodder for school writing assignments when he was younger.

From 2nd – 5th grade he was a  member of an elementary garden club I ran at his school where we had hands-on nature-based lessons once a month and experienced many of those lessons outdoors on school grounds in the company of friends.

And, it was only several years ago when staying at our cabin for a soccer tournament, he and his twin friends caught crayfish, snails, and leeches in the clear shallow water.

All those experiences should add up to a young man still engaged in nature. Yet, today, he doesn’t even remember us calling him Mr. DNR or all of the activities that caused us to tag him with such a nickname.

He’s a great kid, an artist, a good student, and a talented athlete in two sports. But, he’s not an environmental steward despite all the experiences and opportunities to engage.

Thus, when I saw the written caption under the three-year-old’s picture of him being an environmental steward in the future, I felt that it was hopeful but not a given. It is not a caption I would have used for my own experience tells me it might not come to pass. Do I believe we need to start young engaging our children in nature? Yes, of course, I believe this or else I would not have spent the last 20 years of my life trying to do just that!  But, does environmental stewardship starts with a fun outdoor experience at age 3? Sadly, I doubt it.

But, this is the challenge that is before us today. We do not know who, of our youth today, will become an environmental steward. Therefore, we have to try and reach all of them with the breadth and depth of experiences my son had and this three-year-old boy is currently having, thanks to his parents.

We just do not know.

So, we have to provide experiential environmental education for all.

And, hopefully, it will stick, just like maple syrup, for some.

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