Teaching Children and Youth
“If a child is to keep alive his [sic] inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder
“For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers
Their laughter and their loveliness could clear a cloudy day.”
John Denver, Rhymes and Reasons
As adults, it is so easy for us to encounter God’s creation and environmental ideas with a sense of apathy. Children, on the on other hand have a sort of wonder about creation. If they are to keep that same wonder into adulthood, they need to have adults who model these attitudes. This task is not always easily accomplished. Thus this section strives to provide information, activities, and resources that will assist parents, teachers, and pastors in the process of appreciating the wonders of creation with children and youth.
As part of creation, children are included in what God has deemed “good.” Yet they are often the most vulnerable because of their need for loving care. In a world where drastic global environmental catastrophe is a growing possibility, the youngest people are the ones who will inherit the actions of past generations. Therefore, if we think about the needs of those who will live seven generations ahead, then our planning and our actions will help insure a safe and healthy world for the future.
This section explores ideas about integrating concern for the environment into the lives of young people. Recognizing that the needs and learning styles of children vastly change as they grow and develop, the issues relating to early childhood and elementary-aged children are dealt with separately from those of confirmation and high school students.
Early childhood and elementary-aged children
Children need nature. This is how they ground themselves, both literally and figuratively. Connection to the earth, God’s creation, is the best way for children to experience their connection to God the Creator. Children have a unique sense of the reality of the world and its wonder. With exploration they come to know God as the creator of so many wondrous and amazing things.
What research tells us
Studies show that children who experience nature develop better observation skills, are more creative, concentrate better (this includes children with ADD,) and have “more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility.” Outdoor activities engage children in the use of all their senses and help them develop scientific inquiry Interactions with nature fosters a respect for diverse life forms and a heightened sense of self worth. Conversely, children who are separated from nature are more likely to suffer from depression and obesity.
How adults can help
Children need to make these important connections with nature. It is our job to help. Young children experience their world first hand through their senses. They need the experience of watching worms wriggle above ground after a rain, looking closely at snowflakes and wondering how God made every one of them different, or looking closely at the leaves of a tree to and notice how they are all the same and still different.
We must by modeling the appropriate attitudes and behaviors.
- Young children are ready to learn to …
- Take care of plants and other living things.
- Keep the air, water, and earth clean and free from pollution.
- Respect the lives of animals and humans alike.
- Use only what you need.
- Plant flowers and trees.
- Pick up trash.
Before the age of eleven children are not ready to learn about endangered species or saving the rain forest. These concepts just overwhelm children and make them feel helpless. The child knows there is nothing he or she can do to save the world and is left in despair. Before a child can learn to save creation, she or he must first learn to love it.
In today’s world it is difficult to know how to handle letting children explore the great outdoors. Our fast paced, indoor lives often lead us to teach our children to be more fearful of nature, than to appreciate it. While children could get poison ivy or a broken bone outdoors, indoor activities have their own respective risks.
It is our job to help children experience nature, to give them opportunities to marvel at the wondrous creation God has made us part of. Children need to have first hand experience of God’s creation. If we want our children to grow to be good stewards of the earth, we must first teach them to love the earth.
Vacation Bible School
Vacation Bible Schools and day camps are prime opportunities for congregations to instill appreciation of nature in the lives of children. These experiences are often outdoors, and give children chances to enjoy God’s creation in a hands-on manner. Many resources at the end of this section have ideas for projects. See the vacation Bible School resource called “ReNew” a “Green VBS” from Sparkhouse. See the resources and a blog at www.wearesparkhouse.org.
Confirmation and High School
Concern for God’s creation is not only an opportunity for adults in the congregation, but also for the youth. Contrary to the cliché that “youth are the future of the church,” young people are indeed part of the Body of Christ right now. It is the task of parents and church leaders to help young people find ways to participate in the life of the church that are developmentally appropriate. In a world where serious environmental denigration is a reality, today’s young people are the ones who will continue to be Earth’s stewards well into the future.
As they develop more critical thinking skills and independence, middle school and high school students are becoming more able to make connections between their faith and how they live their lives.
Confirmation students usually study the Creed, the Sacraments and the Ten Commandments. Creation-focused ideas can be included into current Confirmation curriculum:
- Have class outside, especially when discussing God as Creator. Let students reflect on how God is active in nature.
- Let youth find a piece of nature (footprint, leaf, feather, etc.) and ask, “So, what does this tell us about God?”
- Lessons on the Sacraments should include mention of the earthly elements involved. Have a remembrance of baptism service near a pond or stream. Bake Communion bread from locally-grown grain.
- Include discussion on materialism and consumerism when discussing “no other gods before me” in the Ten Commandments.
High school students are continuing to form their own self-identity and can think on higher levels than middle school students. There is much room for overlap in terms of curriculum for high school students and for adults. Ideas for linking faith and environment for high school students, either in formal classroom situations or in youth fellowship activities, include:
- Studying biblical passages relating to nature, creation, and environment.
- Examining the social statements of the ELCA, such as Caring for Creation
- Encouraging hands-on servant learning in an action-reflection model.
Many congregations include opportunities for service projects in their confirmation and youth programs. These experiences give young people a chance to put their faith into action and to enjoy time together outdoors. Ecology-based servant events can allow youth to make connections between environmental justice and human social justice. Caring for creation is loving your neighbor. Creative youth leaders can use the following ideas to complement and enrich their servant learning programs:
- Planting trees. Martin Luther is said to have stated that if the world were to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree.
- Cleaning up litter. Check with your state’s highway department about adopt-a-highway programs or with local conservation associations about adopt-a-trail programs. It could be a fun contest to see who could bring back the most trash.
- Gleaning fields after a harvest. This biblical practice of retrieving unharvested food from agricultural fields is still in use today. Food is donated to agencies that feed people who are hungry. (http://www.endhunger.org/gleaning.html).
- Grow a garden. Vegetables could be used in meals at the church or given to local agencies.
- Collect items to be recycled. By recycling items, both the amount of waste in the landfill system and the amount of raw materials needed to produce new products can be reduced. Newspapers, cans, bottles, ink cartridges, batteries, and cell phones can all be recycled.
- Adopt a Watershed. Learn about where your water flows after it leaves your land. Periodically monitor and visit your watershed. EPA’s “Fifteen Things You Can Do to Make a Difference in Your Watershed.” This could be an opportunity to make connections between water use and Baptism. (http://www.epa.gov/owow/watershed/earthday/earthday.html)
- Stencil signs saying “Dump no waste” onto local storm drains. Urban storm drain systems do not generally flow into water treatment plants, but into bodies of water. Signs can educate the community about water resources. Contact municipal authorities before placing signage. (http://www.earthwater.org/store/stencils/basic)
- Compost. Returning decomposing plant-based food waste to the Earth can be a beautiful metaphor for resurrection.
Lutherans have a long history of camping ministry. The camps and retreat centers of the ELCA provide opportunities for exploring God’s creation, environmental education, and Christian fellowship. Many congregations include camping experiences and retreats as part of their confirmation curricula. Many rostered church leaders cite outdoor ministry encounters as important turning points in their vocational discernment. From lakefront sailing to mountain backpacking, Lutheran camps provide settings for tangibly experiencing God’s handiwork and for reflecting on our response as Christians. Besides worship, bible study, and recreation, camp can be an opportunity for young people and their families to learn more about nature and simpler living. For more information about the approximately 145 outdoor ministry programs of the ELCA and those of its ecumenical partners, see the following sites:
Books (early childhood and elementary)
Erickson, D. & Erickson, D. (1991). Seven days to care for god’s world. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press.
This book is a short story for children through which they are able to learn valuable information about God’s creation. In this story, the main character is a young boy named Rupert. Rupert has gone to visit his grandparents and is helping them do work in their garden while at the same time learning about the earth that God created. The grandparents use the creation story from Genesis to explain the earth to Rupert and to teach him why we must care for it. At the end of the story is a short section with activities that a family could utilize to begin caring for creation. The books target audience is ages 5-9 and is very easy to understand. It would be a good introductory resource for children who are curious about creation and caring for the environment.
Hazen, B. S. (1991). World, world, what can I do? Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing.
This is a story book that is written for children. It is quite simple, yet makes a great effort at getting children interested and excited about what they can do to take care of the earth. The story is told in a rhyming fashion which is catchy, but also easy to follow and understand. It touches on issues such as pollution, littering, plants, and animals. It would be a good book for young children or children that needed introduced or reminded about the importance of creation care.
Wood, D. (1992). Old turtle. Duluth: Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers.
This beautifully-illustrated story book describes an argument that animals have about who God is. Old Turtle tells them about God and how humans are a gift from God to the Earth. Children and adults alike may enjoy this touching tale.
Resources for leaders
Garber, M. D. & Spizman, R. F. (1991). What on earth can you do with kids: Environmental activities for every day of the school year. Carthage: Good Apple.
This book is separated into chapters that are divided by month. This book is designed to be used as a year-long focus on the environment. However, parts could be taken out and used if they were specifically applicable to your project. The book contains activities, projects, bulletin boards and much more. It is designed to with grades 1-5.
Hopkins, S. & Winters, J. eds. (1990). Discover the world: Empowering children to value themselves, others and the earth. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.
This book is a good tool if you are looking for something to help children emotionally as well. It has ideas that work with children’s self-esteem and encourage them to be respectful people. The book is designed for children ages 3-12 and has a great deal of charts and activities that teach children how to value themselves, others and the earth. One feature of this resource that is quite helpful is that it explains and introduces children to a wide assortment of other cultures.
Kemper, K. ed. (1991). Caring for god’s world: Creative ecology ideas for your church. Prescott: Educational ministries, INC.
This book is concise yet quite helpful for a church that is striving to locate projects involving the environment and creation for children and youth. The book is divided into three sections. These are-- Children’s Activities, Youth Activities, and All Church Activities. This book is particularly helpful because it has a great deal of specificity. For example, it explains how to begin a recycling program or produce an ecology fair. This source would be helpful if you were seeking projects ideas with a lot of detail. It also includes various arts and crafts projects, plays, skits, and games. There are also pieces that can be utilized in worship service such as litanies. One particularly helpful feature are the outlines for vacation church school programs. This book would be a good resource for both youth directors and pastors, as well as lay people.
Kohl, M. F. (1991). Good earth art. Bellingham: Bright Ring Publishing.
This book is a great resource if you are specifically searching for a craft or project that will engage children in study of the environment. The projects not only raise an awareness of creation care but they also begin to implement it. For example some of the projects utilize things that are saved from the trash or collected from nature. The projects in the book are very creative and quite simple. There are also many helpful illustrations in the book that were completed by Cindy Gainer.
Jenkins, C. L. (1986). Loving our neighbor, the earth: Creation-spirtuality activities for 9-11 year olds. San Jose: Resource Publications, INC.
This book is a very helpful tool if you are looking for specific lesson plans. The book includes 20 lesson plans that can easily be photocopied and utilized to teach in a variety of settings. This book would be particularly valuable in the parochial classroom but may also be a valuable resource for vacation church school or even Sunday school. It could be particularly helpful if one was seeking a unit that focused on the environment. The material is written for 9-11 year olds and it divided into various topics. Some of these topics include, “To Celebrate Creation,” “What Did You Have For Dinner,” “God and Garbage,” and “God is like a tree?”
Jenkins, C. L. (1993). Your will be done on earth: Eco spirituality activities for 12-15 year olds. San Jose: Resource Publications, INC.
This resource has similar features to Jenkins’ book for 9-11 year olds. However, this book focuses on an older group of adolescents and hence the age appropriate topics are more intense. This book strives to connect science with theology and engage 12-15 year olds in discussions on these topics. The book includes 18 lesson plans that have activity ideas as well as documents that can be photocopied and passed out to students. Some of the topics in this resource include; “Called to Care for Creation,” The Earth is Polluted,” and “The ‘Green Squad’ Detectives.”
Miles, B. (1991). Save the earth: An action handbook for kids. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
This book is a great resource for getting children interested and excited in creation care. It is quite helpful because it gives lists and project ideas for things that children can actually do. The book is divided into sections and each section includes an overview description and facts about the topic, an example of an actual kid that is doing work in that area, projects that one can actually do, and a checklist to ensure that you are being environmentally friendly. The topics addressed in this resource are, land, atmosphere, water, energy, plants & animals, and people.
Theoretical background for leaders
Clinebell, H. Ecotherapy: Healing ourselves, healing the Earth. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996.
Pastoral psychotherapist Howard Clinebell explores the relationships between human spiritual and emotional health and the health of the environment. Integrates religious education and pastoral counseling with the environment. Contains several chapters on youth.
Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
This book argues that contemporary living has desensitized children and that young people need to have exposure to the outdoors and nature.
The mission of KSE is to educate, inspire, and empower children to protect the Earth's environment. KSE Worldwide provides action-oriented educational matericals to kids, families, groups, classrooms and schools. They provide educational materials, posters, and informational support for environmentally concerned kids and adults.
This website provides a comprehensive list of books, videos, and curricula about youth and environment from a faith-based perspective.
This website provides information and suggestions of ways that we can plan for future generations.
This is a website that is entitled “Kid’s Corner.” It is created by the National Safety Council in order to teach children about environmental safety. It is a fun website with various activities and games. Some of these are items such as word searches, crossword puzzles, coloring activities, and craft projects. This website for would be helpful if you were looking for quick, yet valuable activities and projects to get children interested in the environment and particularly their health in connection with it.
This is a website that is created by Quaker Earthcare Witness. The website provides background information and an outline of a curriculum that was created by this organization. The curriculum is called, “Earthcare for children.” This website gives information about obtaining it. There is also the option of ordering it.