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  • Writer's pictureAccokeek Foundation

Sustainability for the Next Generation

kids hands
“[My visit] made me more mindful of the products I am using and where I use it or dispose of it.”

Merriam-Webster gives three definitions for sustainability:

  1. able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed

  2. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

  3. able to last or continue for a long time

At the Foundation, we spend a lot of time talking – with our visitors, at events, on the blog, just in the office over lunch – about definitions 1 and 2. We talk about the products we use and our farming methods, and how those products and methods are sustainable, how they help us fulfill our mission of stewardship and sustainability of this place that we love. We teach people how to lead more sustainable lives through their actions.

To me, though, the key to sustainability – and Merriam-Webster’s definition 3 – is capturing the hearts and minds of the children who visit us. The only way to truly make change sustainable is to carry it over into the next generation.

“I started recycling more and turning off more lights.”

The quotes in this post came from high school students when asked if they changed any of their personal habits after visiting us on a field trip. Their class had explored the environmental cost of different modern objects – plastics, pesticides, batteries, for example – compared to their colonial alternatives, and then discussed changes they could make in their own lives to be more eco-friendly.

My position as museum interpreter means I get to spend a lot of my time on the ground, talking to people. I spend my weekends on the Colonial Farm interacting with visitors of all ages, and my weekdays leading students on school tours, and in both I get to teach a combination of history and environmental science (you can read more about our unique style of weekend interpretation here, and our school tours here).

“We stopped using styrofoam cups.”

Working so closely with children means I get to

watch their green evolution. Most kids come to us with an idea about how to save the earth – they know about recycling, and picking up litter, and maybe a little bit about pesticides or saving water. But I find that kids often think about these issues in the big picture and less about how their own individual actions contribute to the problem. They know in theory that disposable styrofoam cups are terrible for the environment, but then they think “well, I’m only using one, so that’s not a big deal” (just like adults, huh?). By the end of their time with me, I want them to realize that each decision they make has an impact.

“It’s hard to convince your parents to change their habits when they have been doing the same thing for years.”

rotational grazing

Humans are creatures of habit, and as the saying go, old habits die hard. It’s difficult to start recycling, for example, if you’ve never done it before in your life. Teaching children from the very beginning about the impact of their actions, and creating a lifetime habit of making positive choices, is what sustainability is all about.

“I became more aware of how something may seem harmless but it can have really bad consequences.”

I don’t expect my students to go home and immediately throw out all of the items they have that are not environmentally friendly. I don’t want them to start policing their parents’ and friends’ behavior. Most importantly, I don’t want to instill in them a sense of guilt over decisions they’ve made in the past. What I want all children to walk away with is an understanding of the importance of environmentally-friendly choices, an ability to think critically about the choices they make, and a starting point for future conversations with the people in their lives.

“I talked to my family about how important recycling is, and how it will help preserve land for future generations.”

All it takes is one moment to instill a lifelong passion for the planet in the mind of a child – whether that moment comes from convincing historical characters to make eco-friendly choices on a field trip, or playing a game about rotational grazing at an event to learn about sustainable farming practices, or planting seeds on the eco-farm, or just having a face-to-face and heart-to-heart interaction with a farm animal. For me, holding a child’s hand to walk him or her through those moments as they happen is one of the best parts of working here at the Foundation.

sheep and kids
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