Updated: Sep 18, 2019
River systems are perfect for children to study how their day-to-day actions can have wide-reaching impacts on a river's water quality and ecological health. Unlike complex large-scale Earth systems, such as global climate patterns and ocean currents, river systems are relatively easy to explore, observe and investigate scientifically using placed-based learning.
"Practically everything we do, from the products we buy in the supermarket, to the amount of water we use in our homes and backyards has direct or indirect impacts on our local river, and the people and wildlife downstream."
Reason #1: We All Live in a River Basin
Everyone of us has a local river or creek close-by to our homes and places of work or study. Clean freshwater is crucial for human survival, and importantly, whether we realize it or not during our busy daily lives, we all live in a 'river basin' (also known as a 'river catchment') somewhere. River basins are extremely sensitive to land use changes, pollution and other human disturbances, which can usually be identified and understood with a little scientific knowledge and some ecological sampling.
Reason #2: Our Actions Matter
Practically everything we do, from the products we buy in the supermarket, to the amount of water we use in our homes and backyards has direct or indirect impacts on our local river, and the people and wildlife downstream. Simple choices like the detergent we wash our clothes with, the shampoo we wash our hair with, and the disinfectant we clean our kitchens with, can have potentially disastrous impacts on our local rivers, lakes, reservoirs and underground aquifers, if we are not careful with the products we buy and use.
Studying rivers in the context of sustainability helps learners to understand the links between how our daily actions can affect rivers.
Reason #3: Connecting Children to Rivers
Rivers have always had huge cultural and spiritual significance in human civilizations throughout the ages. Connecting children to their local river, and building a better understanding of the ways in which each of us impact upon river catchments in general, is a vital part of environmental education and encouraging responsible stewardship of our planet. It also closely aligns with 'Life Below Water' - one of the 17 prominent UN Sustainable Development Goals (known as the 'SDGs').
Reason #4: Links to SDG 14 - Life Below Water
The living things found in a river or stream depend largely on limiting factors (e.g. turbidity, temperature, pH level and dissolved oxygen) and the long-term environmental conditions. If water quality is poor due to human activity for instance, certain freshwater species simply won't be able to survive and reproduce, and so won't be present in the river habitat.
"Connecting children to their local river, and building a better understanding of the ways in which each of us impact upon river catchments in general, is a vital part of environmental education and encouraging responsible stewardship of our planet."
Many freshwater invertebrates (e.g. insects, mollusks and crustaceans), especially insects in the early part of their life cycles, such as mayfly and dragonfly nymphs, are highly sensitive to pollution and human-related disturbances, and thus act as useful 'bio-indicators' for ecological health and overall water quality.
Investigating water quality and river ecology, brings topics including pollution and responsible water consumption to life in a way that a textbook simply cannot.
Reason #5: River Studies Are Engaging!
Collecting freshwater invertebrates (sometimes called 'river dipping') is an easy activity to do with learners of any age from teeny tots right up to university level, and can help bring many ecological and sustainability concepts to life using a hands-on approach.
This works best if it is carried out at a minimum of two different geographical locations - one upstream and one downstream of a big urban area - to make an objective comparison of ecosystem health and develop a deeper understanding of the human impacts on life below water.
Stay tuned for Part II of this blog post (coming soon with the title 'Part II: Rivers Are Perfect for Teaching Sustainability. Here's How!') to find out exactly how this can be done with youth in your local river!
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