Why I Built This Kit
I have always spent a lot of time outdoors – in the woods, in fields, at parks and wildlife sanctuaries, in back and front yards, camping, hiking, swimming, kayaking, on beaches, on mountains – I fell in love with the world at a young age. It’s an ongoing love affair. However, I am still learning ways to care for and respect our planet. I am trying to incorporate some of those ways into my family and our day-to-day life. I hope that this kit offers some inspiration and ideas for you, as well.
Humans benefit from their experiences and relationships with the outdoors and nature both physically and mentally. However, according to one significant study conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, children’s participation in outdoor activities has declined in recent years within the United States. Parents, family, and friends have the strongest influence on younger children’s participation in outdoor recreation. (“Children & Nature Worldwide: An Exploration of Children’s Experiences of the Outdoors and Nature with Associated Risks and Benefits,” 2012, p. 3) That means that we are important role models and shapers in our children’s lives. This might seem like a self-evident truth, unnecessary to actually say out loud or type out, but I, for one, am happy to have that reminder. Kids will enjoy the outdoors more if they see us enjoying the outdoors. They will become active and engaged caretakers of our planet if they see us making similar efforts. This is particularly important, because studies have also shown that adolescents’ environmental concerns have declined since the early 1990s. One study suggests they are more willing to support government or large organization’s efforts in conservation than they are to take personal action today. (“Children & Nature Worldwide,” p. 65) Energy, pollution, wildlife conservation, and climate change remain (and grow) as pressing concerns, though. So how can we change this trend and help our kids become engaged, educated, and thoughtful citizens of the world? Of the natural world? Let’s start at home, and let’s start now while they’re little. With books. With forming new and good habits. With imagination. And with play.
Read an overview of the studies mentioned above and many others: “Children & Nature Worldwide: An Exploration of Children’s Experiences of the Outdoors and Nature with Associated Risks and Benefits,” available online through the Children & Nature Network.
Also, take a peek at Energy Kids, a website from the U.S. Energy Information Administration geared towards kids. While some of the information or the way it is presented might be over the heads of young kids, this is a great resource for parents and caregivers looking for ideas of how to explain or approach different energy topics.
Spark Their Interest
If I had to cast my vote for the best way to get kids interested in taking care of the planet, I’d say to get them exploring the outdoors and often! In addition to that, though, here are some fun facts about nature that might catch kids’ imaginations:
- The water you drank today or used to brush your teeth or take a bath might have been the same water that once rained down on a Tyrannosaurus! It is from the same water supply that has been on this planet for billions of years.
- Some of the best compost is made by…WORMS! Want to set up your own worm compost (aka vermicompost)? Read this!
- Although polar bears have white, fluffy fur, their skin is actually black!
- Earthdance by Joanne Ryder, illus. by Norman GorbatyImagine you are the Earth. Feel yourself growing taller than the trees, larger than the moon. Imagine you are twirling, dancing through space. You are covered with woods and seas, roads and villages, small creatures and laughing children. Imagine you are home to everyone and everything, the precious place we all know and love best--Earth. (Publisher)
- Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals, illus. by Ashley WolffApple cores Bananas, bruised Coffee grounds with filters, used Just add to the pot and let it all rot into Compost Stew! But, if it won't break down, like plastics or chemicals, please recycle it. (Zoobean)
- If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty, illus. by Steven KelloggAn aspiring astronaut imagines a trip to the moon. McNulty takes the young hero through preparations, liftoff, a moonwalk and the return trip, mixing hard facts ("If you average 3,750 miles per hour, you will get there in two-and-a-half days) with poetic phrases ("the moon, the mysterious moon,/ glows like a pearl in the black, black sky"). Kellogg's sweeping spreads of realistic space- and moonscapes strike a balance of beauty and eeriness; one of the most dramatic shows the hero as a tiny, doll-like figure standing at a point where the moon's silvery, barren landscape meets the pitch-black depths of the galaxy. As the returning astronaut contemplates the earth from the vantage point of space, Kellogg's four-panel gatefold celebrating all the earth's inhabitants, from whales and penguins, to cavemen and contemporary children, accompanies McNulty's call for environmental conservation. (Publishers Weekly)
- Energy Island by Allan DrummondThis account of how the residents of a Danish island made large and small changes to switch to renewable energy sources puts names and faces to processes described in more conventional discussions of alternative energy. A determined teacher spent several years trying to convince residents of this continually windy island to create their own energy sources to break their dependence on mainland energy. Two residents eventually agreed to proceed with wind-turbine projects. When a fierce winter storm disrupted the usual electrical transmission, the only source of power on the island came from one of the wind turbines. Once the citizens became convinced of the potential benefits of energy independence, the projects multiplied: solar panels, biomass furnaces, electric cars, and bicycles. Now people from around the world come to Samsø to learn about ways to harness renewable energy and reduce carbon emissions. Informative sidebars supply information on global warming, renewable and nonrenewable energy, and conservation. What is most remarkable about this island, though, is how ordinary people achieved an extraordinary 140 percent reduction in carbon emissions in just 10 years. Loose, pen-and-watercolor illustrations further personalize the story with energy of their own as they bring Samsø and its residents to life. (School Library Journal)
- The Waterhole by Graeme BaseThis vibrant picture book is at once a counting book, a zoological tour, and a hidden-picture challenge. As ten different animals from ten different countries come to quench their thirst, a metaphorical water hole diminishes until it dries up completely and the visitors leave. Then the cycle begins again with a single drop of water, a torrent of rain, and a luxuriant new watering hole that draws all of the creatures back again. Base’s paintings are watercolor and gouache, plus there are silhouettes in the borders of the creatures indigenous to each country and those same animals are hidden in the dense background. A comic note is added with ten frogs, some wearing clothes, whose numbers also decrease as the water dries up. The water hole itself is a concentric cutout oval that shrinks from page to page. (School Library Journal)
- If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian, illus. by Barbara Hirsch LemberWith hand-colored photos of children holding, sitting on, or clambering over rocks, Christian suggests picking up pebbles to see if they are skipping rocks or scraping rocks, wishing rocks or worry rocks, or perhaps just rocks with marvelous things in or under them. Lember adds muted but natural-looking tints to soften the lines in her woodsy, idyllic outdoor scenes. The book suggests to children the rewards of taking closer looks at these most commonplace of natural objects. (Kirkus)
- Butterfly House by Eve Bunting, illus. by Greg ShedWith the help of her grandfather, a little girl makes a house for a larva and watches it develop before setting it free. And when the girl grows old, the butterflies come back to return her kindness. (Barnes & Noble)
- I Will Make Miracles by Susie Morgenstern, illus. by Jiang Hong ChenWith paintings reminiscent of Maurice Sendak, and a lyrical text that is concrete enough for elementary kids to grasp, Susie Morgenstern and Jiang Hong Chen tackle the question: What will you do when you grow up? Their little boy wants to make miracles: He would cure the sick, feed the hungry, jail the bad guys, and fill the world up with people who care and share. The story ends with a twist, bringing a very ambitious group of wishes back down to earth. (Barnes and Noble)
- Morning on the Lake by Jan Bourdeau Waboose, illus. by Karen ReczuchA Native American boy and his grandfather spend a full day in the wilderness. From a morning encounter with a family of loons on the lake, to an evening face-off with some wolves, the child is reassured by his grandfather's presence and wisdom. Quiet in tone, the contemplative first-person narrative brings the Ojibway view of the world into focus. The idea that people are part of nature and must respect both land and animals is never directly stated but is clearly shown. The lengthy text is divided into three sections, denoted by time of day. Since this is a quiet story powered as much by internal as external action, it would be best read aloud in these shorter segments; otherwise, many children will not stick with it. The full- and double-page watercolors are attractive and somewhat photographic. (School Library Journal)
- The Tree Lady by H. Joseph Hopkins, illus. by Jill McElmurryA terrific jacket image shows a tiny girl in a towering forest as seen from above. Who is this girl? And why is she the tree lady? Well, turns out Katherine Olivia Sessions, who grew up in Northern California in the 1860s, always loved trees—she used to weave their leaves into necklaces and bracelets. Girls back then weren’t supposed to get their hands dirty, but Kate did. Girls were also discouraged from studying science, but Kate sure did, graduating from the University of California with a degree in science in 1881. Postgraduation, Kate moved to San Diego, a desert town with little greenery. She wrote to gardeners far and wide, seeking out seeds that would thrive in a harsh desert climate, and by the turn of the century, oaks, eucalypti, and palms sprung up throughout the city. But Kate’s biggest planting project would come in 1915 with the Panama-California Exposition, to be held in Balboa Park. Nobody thought that it would be possible to create a lush garden for the event . . . but guess who did? A little-known, can-do woman shines in this handsome picture book from Hopkins and McElmurry. Hopkins ably brings a woman’s passion—and some science—to a story that’s accessible for young children. And, oh the pictures! Both old-timey and lush, they evoke Kate’s vision perfectly, and individually labeled illustrations of trees add to the educational value. A lovely tribute to the pioneering (and environmentalist) spirit, topped off by an author’s note. (Booklist)
- Coral Reefs by Jason ChinUsing a fantasy framework, Chin offers a colorful and inventive non-fiction introduction to coral reefs. A young girl pulls a replica of this very book off the shelves in the magnificent reading room of the New York Public Library. As she becomes absorbed in it, coral starts to sprout around her and the photo realistic illustrations begin to transform into the watery world of the reef. With book still in hand, the girl observer floats through this fantastic world, which is skillfully illustrated with vivid, arresting views of the fragile habitat. Through the use of panels and changing perspectives, Chin maximizes the drama of reef life while the straightforward text packs in basic information including the structure of a reef and the concept of a food chain. Some points need further clarification and two pages of informative back matter help, offering technical diagrams describing the relationship between the algae and the corals, as well as concerns about the future of coral reefs. (School Library Journal)
- The World That We Want by Kim Michelle ToftThis book offers two-page vistas that incorporate animals found in a variety of habitats, including a mangrove, a tide pool, and a reef. As viewers move from flying pelican to gliding barracuda, Toft creates ever-widening perspectives to reveal how various ecosystems relate to one another. For example, after introducing air, rain forest, and river, she provides a spread that shows all 15 animals previously introduced. This process culminates in an impressive four-page, foldout panorama that includes all 45 animals. The minimal text cumulates as well in a house that Jack built structure: This is the rain forest that filters the air that circles the world that we want. Of course, the underlying message is how easily the intertwined ecosystems can unravel. That idea is reinforced on the concluding five pages. Toft talks about the threats to various habitats and offers a few facts about each animal included in her illustrations. Although some of these creatures are unique to her native Australia, many can be found in other parts of the world as well. The arresting, brilliantly hued illustrations were drawn and painted on silk. (School Library Journal)
- The Curious Garden by Peter BrownWhile out exploring one day, a little boy named Liam discovers a struggling garden and decides to take care of it. As time passes, the garden spreads throughout the dark, gray city, transforming it into a lush, green world. This is an enchanting tale with environmental themes and breathtaking illustrations that become more vibrant as the garden blooms. Red-headed Liam can also be spotted on every page, adding a clever seek-and-find element to this captivating picture book. (Publisher)
- On Meadowview Street by Henry ColeCaroline and her family have recently moved to Meadowview Street, in a development where all of the properties look alike and there's not a meadow in sight. The girl is about to go in search of one when she notices a small flower. "It's beautiful! Caroline said to herself. And all alone." She asks her dad to work around it while mowing the lawn, hurries inside to find string and sticks, and builds a "small wildflower preserve." As other flowers bloom, she enlarges the area. Dad puts the lawn mower up for sale, and, with the help of her parents, Caroline (surely an heir to Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius) sets about transforming her suburban backyard into a teeming ecosystem. Soon there are butterflies, birds, a pond, flowers, trees, and a real meadow on Meadowview Street. "And soon, the Jacksons' yard changed. And the Smiths'. And the Sotos'." Cole's economical text and tender, acrylic paintings tell the story with simplicity and energy as the barren strip of grass evolves into a lush habitat. This lovely picture book offers children a quiet approach to embracing the natural world. (School Library Journal)
- Just A Dream by Chris Van AllsburgWhen it comes to the environment, young Walter is not an enlightened individual. He's a litterbug who believes sorting trash is a big waste of time. What's more, he thinks his friend's birthday present, a tree, is the most ridiculous gift he's ever seen. Walter believes the future is going to be wonderful, filled with robots and other amazing inventions. One night while lying in bed, Walter wishes he could visit the future. He falls asleep and his wish comes true. But the world Walter sees is not exactly what he'd imagined. When he returns to the present, he is changed and so are his dreams. Caldecott-winning artist Chris Van Allsburg brings us a striking look, in unique and evocative pictures, at what our future may hold. (Publisher)
- The Lorax by Dr. SeussLong before “going green” was mainstream, Dr. Seuss’s Lorax spoke for the trees and warned of the dangers of disrespecting the environment. In this cautionary rhyming tale, we learn of the Once-ler, who came across a valley of Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots (“frisking about in their Bar-ba-loot suits as they played in the shade and ate Truffula Fruits”), and how his harvesting of the tufted trees changed the landscape forever. (Publisher)
10 Things I Can Do to Help My World by Melanie WalshA beautifully simple book for small children where transforming pages reveal ten things that everyone can do to help conserve their world. Many of them, such as turning off the television properly, walking to school and turning off lights when leaving a room, are about conserving energy. Others, such as feeding the birds in winter and growing plants from seed, will encourage an understanding of nature and conservation. (Publisher) Try some of these fun activities based on the book, too!
Earth by Israel Felzenszwalb, illus. by David PalatnikLearn all about the earth and the different forms it takes in informational story narrated from the earth’s perspective. Despite a silly edge, this actually packs in a lot of information in a very approachable way, making it closer to nonfiction than fiction.
National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of the Ocean by Catherine D. Hughes Kids will marvel at the range of ocean animals and their habitats in this National Geographic selection. A perfect introduction to the oceans of the world and the life within them.
- Noisy Frog Sing-AlongPeepers, pickeral frogs, spadefoot toads and more (even a salamander!), this fun and noise-filled app is one to grow with. Young children will enjoy the simple, informative story and beautiful illustrations while older kids will love the expanded details about each type of frog afterwards. Both sets will love seeing the wide range of habitats that frogs make their homes! The matching game at the end teaches about sound waves while emphasizing each frog's unique song again. Nature and frog fanatics will be hopping up and down for Noisy Frog Sing-Along!
- Over in the Ocean: In a Coral ReefA beautiful and informative exploration of life in a coral reef, I love this app for its appealing medley of science, music, math, and art.
- I Love MountainsLearn about geology, ecosystems, and earth science in this fun app that’s filled with awesome animations showing how mountains are formed!
- The Four Seasons: An Earth Day Interactive Children’s Story BookThis story app is a fabulous introduction to taking care of our planet and learning about how all things are connected while kids take the lead and help complete specific tasks that contribute to the environment.
Watch, Listen, Learn
A song about loving the earth and taking care of it, accompanied by a video of kids singing and dancing. Short and sweet.
A cute, wordless cartoon about a family who changes their ways to save energy.
Learn what other kids around the world are doing to help the planet using this interactive map from the United Nations Environment Programme. For example, read a poem about a windmill written by six-year-old Ruhee Parelkar from Ahmedabad, India.
This is a well-designed interactive site for kids from Energy Star. I especially like the Your Planet Needs You section, which offers brief and kid-friendly definitions and explanations as well as great visuals. If your child is not yet an independent reader, read the text to them as they explore the site!
Learn about the Little Earth Charter, with 8 basic principles for loving and caring for our planet. This animated video and song takes kids through the first principle, Life. Then visit the Little Earth Charter website to learn about the rest of the principles, hear stories, more music, play games, etc. From the site: “The Earth Charter is a set of fundamental principles that seek to define a just, sustainable and peaceful society for the 21st century.” It has been adopted by UNESCO, and the Little Earth Charter is an adaptation geared towards kids ages 4-8.
Explore and play on Smokey the Bear’s website. Learn how to prevent wildfires in this cabin full of games, tips, rules, a storymaker, and other history and trivia.
Outdoor Music Station
Make an outdoor music station out of upcycled materials such as tin cans of different sizes, lids to jam or mason jars, jingle bells (old holiday ornaments perhaps?), small wooden boxes, and fishing line or some other durable material to hang outdoors. Have your child help you paint the cans and other materials destined to become instruments first. Then add a layer of Mod Podge to help protect the paint outdoors. Make a hole in the top of each item and tie string through it. Then tie the instruments outdoors so they hang, somewhat like a windchime, but low enough for your child to bang on them with a stick and make their music! See a full tutorial with photos here, or learn how to make other types of instruments from recycled materials here.
Bottle Cap Art
Bottle caps are often very colorful and come in all different sizes. Save them before you toss or recycle them to give your kiddo some new art supplies. Then let them go to town making whimsical designs such as flowers, animals, or other designs. Glue them onto cardstock or cardboard, or make the decorations durable for the outdoors by screwing each cap onto plywood or thick cardboard. Have your child paint the plywood first to have a colorful backdrop that shows through. Get some inspiration here!
Symmetry in Nature
I love this idea for a fun lesson in symmetry while taking a hike and then once returning home. Take pictures of a bunch of different items you see on your walk. Use a pocket mirror on those pictures to test how symmetrical they are. Have your child sort the pictures into rows of those that are symmetrical and those that are not symmetrical. Then use sun sensitive paper to make art with some symmetrical leaves or flowers!
Donate to a Good Cause
Make a special family bank in which to deposit coins that you find on the street or perhaps money that you get for returning bottles. Have your child help you pick an organization that cares for our planet in some way—an animal shelter, a national foundation devoted to a specific animal or wildlife, a park you love that runs on donations, etc.— and once a year or however time allows donate the money you have collected to the organization. When making the donation, have your child write a note and/or draw a picture to accompany your gift. It doesn’t need to be a large monetary amount to be meaningful to the organization or to your child. Extend this activity by helping your child and their friends plan a fundraiser they can run themselves to add to the bank, whether a lemonade stand, bake sale, or painted seashells/craft stand. Have fun making this a family tradition!
Provide your child with opportunities to explore the world around them. This might mean taking walks in your immediate neighborhood or local parks, or traveling to sites known for wildlife and natural beauty. Allow your child to get dirty, to get their shoes wet and muddy, or their hands into soil or mud. This promotes good health and encourages their sense of discovery and connection to the environment. Create a scavenger hunt with a list or images of different things that can be found in nature (puddle, acorn, stick, bird, flower, etc.), adapting it to suit the place you are in, and send out your little investigator. Go camping for your next family vacation. Have fun! As Jennifer Emmett noted in Zoobean’s Expert on Air Chat, "You can't love the planet if you're not outside enjoying it."
Make time to get involved in your outdoor community. Perhaps this means picking up trash from a beach, park, or neighborhood street, volunteering in a local animal shelter that works to help stray animals from the surrounding area, planting a tree, adopting a plot in a community garden, etc. Find opportunities for your child to give back to your community or a place that they love. As a starting point, try calling your local parks and recreation department to see if they have any organized events or suggestions of activities you can organize on your own. They might also be able to point you in the direction of other groups to connect with.
Together with your child, make a chart of activities you can do around the house or community that will save energy. These might include turning the tap off while brushing your teeth, turning lights off when you leave a room, carpooling or riding a bike to get somewhere, putting on a sweater instead of turning up the heat, turning off computers and other technology at night or when you are finished using them, using reusable bags or storage containers rather than plastic bags, taking fabric totes to do your shopping to avoid obtaining new disposable bags, etc. Give those math skills a workout while you’re add it: have your child count the number of lightbulbs in each room of your house and, based on your estimate, add up how many hours each day they are turned on. How many shopping bags do you collect at an average trip to the grocery store? How many can you save by using a fabric tote instead? Help your child calculate how much money you can save on gas by carpooling or biking somewhere. Etc. Add a bead to a necklace or bracelet or window decoration for each day your child accomplishes one energy-friendly activity. This is not only a fun way to remind the whole family of ways of conserving energy, but will help turn these everyday tasks into lifelong habits.
Greetings from central Maine! Things you should know about me: I am the mother of an inquisitive, active toddler who keeps me on my toes. I work in a small, independent children’s bookstore where I get to help kids, teens, and their grown-ups find books that will keep them up reading all night long. Just kidding about that last part, they go to sleep eventually, I swear. Well, I don’t swear, but I assume. But matching people and books? My favorite way to play matchmaker! Before moving to Maine I worked as a historical researcher for American Girl, where I learned about everything from steamboats to wars to parrots. I am also a children’s book author myself, with my first picture book due to come out in 2015! When I’m not knee-deep in books or blocks or a sandbox, I bake a lot, avoid cleaning at all costs, and try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. For the record, I would love to be a neat and orderly person, it just doesn’t seem to be my style. I’m working on it.