Summer is when we expose our kids (particularly our city kids) to nature, gardening and camping gear. My teenagers already get “environmental” assignments during the school year, but when summer comes, they get to live them out. Those “green” talks from Mom or those tests at school are set aside for combating slugs on our backyard lettuce or tasting the differences between faucet water in Chicago and northern Wisconsin.
Last week my family kept meaning to leave the comforts of Aeron Haynie’ s Wisconsin home to camp in Peninsula State Park, but the closest we got to a tent was when we hiked up the Eagle Bluff trail one afternoon before heading back to the city and our summer teaching obligations. Once back home we took the camping gear out of the car and promised to compensate for our lame commitment to nature by camping in our Chicago backyard this weekend and making s’mores with our Target-purchased fire pit. Some environmentalists we are…
Fortunately, the popular media is loaded with environmental news right now, so it is easy to share some of these stories with your kids while thinning the carrots in your city garden. Here are some of my favorite environmental “children’s stories” from the past few months (apologies for any links that require subscriptions):
• Frogs My teens and I enjoy watching The Colbert Report  on occasion. Recently Stephen Colbert hosted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof discussing his column about frogs, endocrine disruptors and the documented changes occurring in the male genitals of frogs and humans. My son listened closely to the interview, but we both found it difficult to laugh at stories about the amount of endocrine disruptors that are impossible to filter out of our water systems due to contraceptives, hormones in milk and prescription drugs. When Colbert exclaimed, “That means I’m drinking lady pee!” our mouths were not quite smiling. This piece inspired me to tell my son about another ‘Kolbert’ frog report, this one from New Yorker magazine writer Elizabeth Kolbert who wrote “The Sixth Extinction ,” an essay covering mysterious fungus, disappearing frogs, and the various signs that the next “mass extinction” may have already begun.
• Whales After being a bit depressed about signs of the next mass extinction, I felt compelled to share a more optimistic New York Times magazine article by Charles Siebert with my kids. “Watching Whales Watching Us ” describes the survival skills of the gray whales and how clearly they seem to be attempting to communicate with humans. Whale vocalizations and relationships to sound have long been studied for their unique range and complexity, but studying their brains is fairly new. Siebert’s article also included a reference to the Natural Resources Defense Council report  documenting Naval submarine sonar exercises that cause brain hemorrhages in whales, a study that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. (Courtroom battles always make for good storytelling…)
Gray whales seem to have forgiven humans for almost causing their mass extinction (think Moby Dick), even while remaining watchful of us. Siebert points to studies of whale brains that suggest that whales, like humans, have “specialized neurons” that are exclusively connected to language and communication. These whales seem to want to share information with us. Certain cognitive abilities have always defined what separates humans from animals, but neuroscience may help that distinction to grow increasingly blurry. Siebert suggests that whale encounters may be our closest analogy to an alien encounter with a species that is different in kind but equal in other ways.
• Heat In case you haven’t found this great IHE blog yet, take a look at “G. Rendell’s” Getting to Green, which focuses on the latest research, reports and efforts by academia to work on our environmental challenges. "Rendell" has addressed the politically contentious issue of the causes for global warming. This column  considers the implications of a new report that blames the way the planet stores heat more than greenhouse gases for changing the climate.
Sharing stories and news reports with your children and your students will help to involve them in the immediacy of the environmental crisis, but physically involving them always seems preferable. I’m lucky. Partners, cousins and grandparents on all sides of our family love gardening and cooking, so visiting family in summer typically involves eating from and tending to nature. In our Chicago house we compost, recycle, pour biodiesel in our VW diesel and try to never accept plastic bags at stores. We even took my daughter to play “Veggie Bingo” on her birthday, an incident for which she may never forgive me (since the only prizes you could win that day were organic vegetables...).
Any better suggestions for involving children with the environment are welcome…