Empowering children to protect nature | Global Ideas | DW | 28.02.2012
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Global Ideas

Empowering children to protect nature

What draws children to the environment? What does nature look like through their eyes? GLOBAL IDEAS reporter Torsten Schäfer takes a journey back to his childhood to find the answers.

Three children get up close and personal with a plant (Photo: dapd)

More and more kindergartens in Germany are focusing on getting kids close to nature

Wearing bright yellow rubber boots, we stood right in the midst of the muddy, marshy Modau, a tributary of the Rhine river that flows through the Odenwald mountain range. There were three of us: one holding a blue trash bag while the others stuffed it full with anything we could find floating through the gray, dirty water. We plucked out rusty coke cans, oily brown plastic bags, screws, even a shoe: all waste that residents living by the river had simply dumped into the river.

We were furious. We wanted to help make the river better, cleaner, make things easier. And more importantly, we wanted to see fresh salmon return to the water. We had been fishing in the Modau since we were six years old, and we knew all the species by heart.

The "Salmon 2000 program" was put in place to clean up the river, which had turned into a stinking, murky sewer by the end of the 1980s. These days, salmon swim freely in the Rhine’s clear waters. But back in 1992, everything looked alarmingly different.

Young enthusiasm; adult role models

Two small children play on the muddy riverbank (Photo: dapd)

There's nothing like getting your hands dirty in the earth

As we were toiling away in the water, a man walking by the railing on the promenade above stopped and called down to us. It was the local youth counselor. When we told him what we were attempting to do, he immediately came up with his own plan: he decided to found a youth environmental group in the area.

That chance meeting kicked off three years of fun activities and earnest lessons – true advancement, in the best sense of the word. The counselor got a hold of an environmental educator, who showed us how to stuff black alder into the riverside, making the shore sturdier and more resistant. In the night, we would take detectors to go bat spotting and strain insects out of streams.

But with age came change, and after a few years, the youth environmental group disbanded. At the age of 16 I was more political. I wanted to get out on the streets and protest nuclear power. I had made a name for myself as the local dissident, wanting to improve life in my own backyard.

I never thought I would find as many like-minded souls as I did. The fact that some of them liked to play ping pong, too, was an added benefit. Tarek suggested that we become part of the young socialists group, and that sparked a new flurry of activity. We fought for a youth bus at night, bike paths on the main street, an end to nuclear power and the advent of solar energy for the region. We spent months researching, coming up with a "solar reader" complete with my first press release.

When I think back to that period in my life, I wonder what worked and what did not. The connection to our immediate environment was a deciding factor: to be able to change the area we knew best touched us on a deeper level. And to see the positive effects in our familiar surroundings.

But none of it would have happened without a helping hand: we were lucky to have our youth counselor on our side, encouraging us and feeding our cocky belief that we could effect change.

New era for green awareness

Kids stand in shallow water and look for the bottom (Photo: dapd)

Children test the water quality by looking at the species they discovered in it

These days, environmental awareness is far more developed than it once was. In the 1990’s, the theme was relegated to the back burner, with German reunification and its political and social consequences taking center stage. Now, a growing number of people are thinking about nature and the world they want for their children.

Environmental philosopher Andreas Weber argues in his books and essays that children should be exposed to nature early and often, and allowed the freedom they need. Rainer Brämer, a nature sociologist and hiking expert, researches the relationship between children and nature, and he urges parents to make sure their kids renew faith in their green surroundings.

The discussion isn’t new: in 2005, the book "Last Child in the Woods" was published in the US, unleashing a lively debate about the role of nature in a child’s life.

I have the feeling that the tide is changing and Hannah Heinevetter, who lives below us, agrees. She travels from one conference to another as a freelance environmental consultant. She told me about many new ideas emerging in environmental education. There are geocaching tours that take children in Hamburg on a journey through the city’s rivers to search for otters, climate camps that Hannah herself is planning, wilderness courses for kids, training for teachers, special courses in the classroom and even kindergarten programs that promote sustainable living.

Other ideas include so-called student companies that under the guidance of Berlin’s Free University are meant to engage in eco-friendly economic activity. The aim is to keep young adults involved with the environment especially because they start to lose interest as they get older.

The signs are encouraging. It makes you think that our children perhaps understand more than we think and can protect the environment and build upon it more smartly. But they can only take action if they are given free rein and introduced to nature early.

Bans take us further away from nature

Nature has become a foreign concept in Germany today, a remote and almost mysterious concept that is meant to be stared at behind the safety of a fence or a computer screen. It’s almost as if there were invisible signs, with stern messages like "Do not touch"and "It’s not worth it."

We’re trying to free our daughter from these boundaries. But that barrier that separates us from our surroundings lives in all of us. Wading through streams, collecting insects, planting trees – that all seems a distant memory to me now. My journalistic work today doesn’t allow me to go on those kinds of expeditions. But sometimes, I fool myself into thinking that it does. I just finished an article with a paragraph on the salmon in the Rhine river.

Near the city of Bonn, they jump in the air, soaring as high as 1.80 meters above the river embankment in the fall – just like in Alaska. The salmon have become a local attraction, too. Twenty years ago, nobody could have imagined that would be possible.

Reporter: Torsten Schäfer/ss
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar