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How to Teach Kids About Sustainability

So you want to be a good role model and teach kids—whether your own, nieces and nephews or a classroom—how to respect nature, be mindful of the waste they create and more. In short, to teach them about sustainability. And have fun doing it. Where do you start?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

There are some quick pointers on how to do so, such as these 5 tips for teaching kids about sustainable living, geared to a younger audience:

1. Lead by example
2. Make it fun
3. Get kids involved
4. Read to them
5. Volunteer with your kids

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching offers suggestions on teaching about sustainability issues for a more mature audience:

1. Beware of student overload
2. Avoid doom and gloom
3. Focus on quality of life issues
4. Peer engagement and support
5. Student analysis of data
6. Deconstruct eco-rhetoric 
7. Precautionary principle
8. Embrace interdisciplinarity 

Sound like some solid pointers, but not sure how to start implementing them in practice? Turns out there are quite a few resources with detailed ideas and lesson plans.

The Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit advancing ecological education in K-12 schools, believes the best hope for learning to live sustainably comes from schooling that is “smart by nature.” This includes weaving the following basics throughout curriculum at every grade level:

Experiencing the natural world; learning how nature sustains life; nurturing healthy communities; recognizing the implications of the ways we feed and provision ourselves; and knowing well the places where we live, work and learn.

The center offers a wealth of information and material, covering environmental issues, instructional tools, strategies and philosophical grounding.

Facing the Future is a nonprofit that creates tools for educators to equip and motivate students to develop critical thinking skills, build global awareness and engage in positive solutions for a sustainable future. The curricula offered by Facing the Future covers environmental, social and economic issues as well as sustainable solutions.

The National Wildlife Federation explains how Eco-Schools USA can benefit your school. The free program is designed to help schools improve academic performance, save money and conserve resources—to green your school inside, outside and throughout the curriculum. There are seven steps to complete before receiving an Eco-Schools award, one of which is linking to educational curriculum.

Check out what's available at Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation (CELF)’s resource center. The mission of CELF is to establish sustainability as an integral part of every child’s K-12 learning experience. Yes! Magazine’s Teaching Sustainability section includes resources on how to build a robust economy, healthy planet and just world for all.

Hungry for more ideas? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a Students and Sustainability online clearinghouse of information, designed for teachers who want to introduce concepts of sustainability in their classrooms and for students who need guidance in their sustainability research projects.

If you are looking for something hands-on this spring, consider the following pointer from Green Education Foundation, a nonprofit committed to creating a sustainable future through education: the garden as a teaching tool.

The foundation sees a garden as a great place to explore sustainability education, offering kids lessons in ecology, biodiversity and conservation. Guidelines offer plans for sustainable gardens at three budget levels and tutorials on constructing wheelchair-accessible raised beds and bird feeders, as well as details on topics ranging from recycled materials to water conservation.

What techniques have you used to teach children about sustainability?

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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