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Top 5 Ways to Empower Children to Tackle the 21st Century Environmental Burden We're Leaving Them

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

Environmental Education (EE) in the context of sustainable development is essential for the next generation to build a brighter future in the 21st Century. It's vital in order to meet the sizable (and growing) environmental challenges we face.

What's certain is that today's youth must gain deeper levels of environmental understanding and ecological literacy, through carefully constructed education which begins in pre-school, and is not only integrated, but intimately interwoven into the curriculum until the end of compulsory schooling. But why is this so important?

Why Integrate Environmental Education?

Why? Perhaps because we have no choice? Well, that's probably true - without a seismic shift in collective human consciousness and a realization that we depend entirely upon Earth's finely balanced natural systems for our survival, we probably do face a seemingly bleak future in the 21st Century. Unless we can find a way to live within our ecological means, we risk facing an existence of mere surviving, nevermind thriving. But I digress.

In addition, there are many other important reasons for integrating EE into our schools like never before. EE encourages curiosity and discovery-based learning, nurtures a deeper connection with nature and helps build scientific literacy and critical thinking at a time when 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' are fast becoming normal phraseology in both our daily language and society as a whole.

But given the daily barrage of bad environmental news from scientists worldwide, and signs of ecological destruction in almost every direction we look on Earth, it's a big challenge even for an impassioned environmental educator to remain positive and motivated to help create a sustainable future, nevermind a school child.

The 21st Century Environmental Burden

So exactly how can we make sure the next generation of young people we educate don't feel disheartened and hopeless under the weight of a towering environmental burden, which they did not create but ultimately must solve if they are to thrive in the 21st Century?

It's a good question and fortunately one that's possible to answer. I believe there's a turnkey formula to creating well-informed and empowered changemakers with a burning desire for impact and change on global issues. The solution, of course, ultimately comes down to education - but what specifically does education designed to cultivate responsible and informed global citizens with a changemaker mindset actually look like?

5 Essential Pillars for Empowering Sustainability Changemakers

Well, there are 5 Essential Pillars for Empowering Sustainability Changemakers, which must come together through the process of experiential education designed to drive transformative learning and reinforce curriculum-based classroom studies as follows:

1. Wilderness & Adventure

Experiencing the outdoors through exploration and adventure during childhood builds resilience to overcome challenges and encourages a deeper appreciation for the natural world and all living things. In order to encourage children to become stewards for the environment, we must first immerse them in nature-based learning and adventure. To quote academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist, David Suzuki:

"Unless we are willing to encourage our children to reconnect with and appreciate the natural world, we can't expect them to help protect and care for it." - David Suzuki, Academic, Science Broadcaster and Environmental Activist

2. Ecological Literacy

Children must also gain a deeper understanding of the natural systems that make life on earth possible through sound scientific knowledge and contextualized understanding gained through hands-on environmental education and field studies from an early age which continues throughout compulsory schooling. To quote Indian-born American author and public speaker, Deepak Chopra:

"The trees are our lungs, the rivers our circulation, the air our breath, and the Earth our body." - Deepak Chopra, Author & Speaker

3. Sustainability & Global Citizenship

Young people must explore the environmental, economic, social, political and cultural aspects of sustainability in depth to gather the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes required to lead productive lives, make informed decisions and assume active roles locally and globally in facing and resolving global challenges. These complex issues are best explored when children are older and more mature (i.e. age 11-18). To quote former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon:

" Sustainable development is the pathway to the future we want for all. It offers a framework to generate economic growth, achieve social justice, exercise environmental stewardship and strengthen governance." - Ban Ki-moon, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (2007 - 2016)

4. Leadership & Team Skills

Developing youth leadership through project-based learning and collaboration is also essential to creating empowered changemakers with the skills and confidence to innovate and solve local to global challenges. Becoming an effective leader and team player requires gradual development through project-based learning that seeks to replicate real-world work scenarios. To quote John Maxwell, an American author and public speaker on leadership:

“The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” - John Maxwell, American Author & Speaker

5. Take Community Action

Through a collaborative cycle of service learning including action and reflection, children must be empowered to achieve real, tangible objectives for the community, and build new understanding and skills for themselves. Nothing sums this up better than cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead's famous quote:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist, Author & Speaker

On Borrowed Time

It's these 5 key elements of experiential education outside the classroom that help translate curriculum-based classroom learning into meaningful, real-world contexts that empower young people to become sustainability changemakers.

This shift in education is more important now than it's ever been. Scientists have shown that we are consuming resources at a rate equivalent to 1.7 Earths per year, well beyond what our planet can sustain. In addition, the UN's latest IPCC report on global warming concludes that humanity has just 12 years (until 2030) to take radical action and avert climate disaster.

So let me leave you with a poignant Native American proverb, which brings meaning to the modern concept of sustainability and nicely sums up the take-home message of my blog post:

"We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." - Native American Proverb

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