The problems facing our oceans today aren’t going to be solved in one generation. Fisheries can take decades to rebound. Removing trash from the seas will take nothing short of a large-scale cleanup. Curbing climate change will require time to reduce our emissions and years more to reverse or adapt to the change that’s already occurred. That means to make real progress, we need to instill environmental stewardship of our oceans in our children.
Getting kids engaged with issues as broad and complex as ocean sustainability can be challenging, but there are a lot of things educators and other adults can do. Researchers have shown that the best way to get people to care about an issue is by making an emotional connection. The same is true for kids. Here are a few tips to get kids invested in our oceans’ health and the fight to protect it.
Show how your classroom is connected to the sea
Even if you’re in a coastal state, most kids don’t interact with oceans on a daily basis and many may have never seen one. So how can you get students to care about something so far away? The key is the water in your own community. Rather than talking about the ocean in the abstract, show how the water in your community makes them part of the greater ocean system. The creeks, streams, rivers, sewers and plumbing students interact with every day all contain water that will eventually end up in the ocean – including the trash dropped on the ground and the junk dumped down the drain.
Start by showing students your watershed and where the water used at school goes. It not only provides an opportunity to learn about water science, but building this connection with the oceans can help give kids a sense of ownership and responsibility about its fate.
Focus on relatable impacts
Oceans are complex, so it follows that ocean sustainability is too. There are myriad issues from plastic pollution and fisheries management to acidification as a result of climate change. Complicating things further are how these problems interact with each other, changing food webs, currents and more. When put like this, the whole topic can seem byzantine and opaque – a recipe for eyes glazing over.
Take climate change. We know that warming global temperatures that melt glaciers could alter currents in ways that dramatically change weather in Europe. That’s a huge deal, but it’s scope and intangibility make it hard to grasp and connect with. Instead, look for impacts that are more relatable. Studies have found that people are more moved to care and act when you put a specific face to an issue. In the ocean, that can mean whales, dolphins, sea turtles, seahorses and other wildlife that are on the front lines of the oceans’ environmental degradation.
For climate, that could be mean talking about ocean acidification. Scientists know that changing the chemical nature of the ocean has profound effects on everything under the sea: including marine wildlife kids know and love. By illustrating how acidification harms crabs, coral and other shellfish, you can make a personal and tangible connection.
Explain concrete ways they can make a difference
Remember those campaigns that asked people to cut the soda rings before throwing them away? In addition to the emotional stories about turtles that were deformed after getting stuck in a ring, these campaigns were helpful because they offered a discrete way that any person could make a difference.
To be sure, cutting your plastic soda rings before throwing them away doesn’t keep them from polluting waterways and certainly isn’t as helpful as reducing your plastic use in the first place. But by starting with a small action, you’re training students to be more aware of their environmental impact. Cutting soda rings comes first, but can lead people to make other sustainable choices, like switching to a reusable water bottle, choosing biodegradable plastic products and bringing their own bags to the supermarket. Collectively, these actions make a big difference, but they begin by making sustainability feel actionable and attainable.
While people’s individual actions make a large difference, ultimately, it takes political and legal change to ensure our oceans are restored, conserved and protected in the long run. Showing kids how they can rally support and participate in the political process both builds civic skills and deepens their engagement with the issues. Whether they’re asking the highest echelons of government to stop more offshore drilling plans and create more marine protected areas or contacting their local government about a new recycling program to limit litter, showing kids they can be part of something that makes a difference on a scale as grand as the ocean is an invaluable lesson that will help them make the world a better place for generations to come.
Joe Baker is the Vice President of Editorial and Advocacy for Care2 and ThePetitionSite. He is responsible for recruitment campaigns for nonprofit partners, membership growth efforts and all editorial content.
Prior to Care2, Joe was the Executive Director of N-TEN. Joe serves on the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, the Advisory Board of GiveForward and volunteers for the Sierra Club and Amnesty International.
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