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The Changing Room: Teaching My Child About Mother Earth

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"One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." -- Shakespeare

As a child growing up in the Colorado Rockies, my playground was the forest. Every morning on the way to school, I listened to a symphony of larks, catbirds and warblers. I chased after snowshoe rabbits and trotted on horseback through hills thick with aspens and conifers. Throughout the winter months, I looked up every day at a panorama of bright blue skies and snow-heavy mountains and, always, I'd feel a thrill shoot through my body. To me, that stunning scene was God's original screensaver.

I loved reveling in nature, so much so I even tried to ride my bike in the snow. The rivers, lakes, forests and skies were all so sparkling clean. These amazing gifts of earthy beauty would always be there for me -- of that, I was sure.

And so for decades I never did think twice about the natural world I left behind. During my adult years, I was too busy making my way through corporate America. There, the path to the corner office was my daily trail, polyester carpeting was my grass, and florescent tubes of lighting were my stars. This bona fide nature girl became an office girl, and for those years I accepted my hermetically sealed life.

And then my daughter, an undeniable girl of the earth, came along.

Here was a baby whose crying jags would instantly cease the moment I took her into the garden. Here was a little girl who found her purest bliss in rolling down grassy hills, running through the park with her dog and splashing in the Pacific. Here was a child who swam around our pool searching for wayward bees to rescue from drowning -- never mind their potential to sting her. My daughter has become so protective and enamored of the natural world that she recently wrote a letter to President Obama asking him to help save our sharks, several species of which have been hunted to the point of extinction.

It was my child's love for Mother Earth that renewed me, coaxed me out of my man-made corporate cave and back into the sunlight. Only then did I realize just how much I missed it -- nothing could ever replace all the textures, sounds, aromas or beauty of our planet.

But now back among the flowers, lakes and trees, I am alarmed by what I see. On too many days this year, I've had to tell my daughter not to go outside because the air quality is so threatening. On a recent fishing trip, her father warned her not to go into the lake; the water was too contaminated for even a swim. The light pollution in our cities concerns me, too -- we had to drive three hours out of town just see the Milky Way. And as for drinking straight out of the tap, I would never, ever, allow it. Tap water is now too laden with toxins.

All of this has sent me into deep thought about our planet. What message does this send to our children? That our world is no longer a safe place in which to play? I want this beautiful earth to be here for our child and yours, and someday their little ones, too. As parents we've taught our girl to appreciate the awesomeness of nature and to preserve our resources.

We take baby steps. My daughter is in charge of our recycling efforts, and making sure we all turn off the taps and lights when we can. We also pack her a stainless steel thermos and choose reusable products for a mostly trash-free lunch, with reusable wraps and cloth napkins when we can.

We also cultivate our little girl's connection to the earth with daily rituals. This fall we are planting our first organic garden, inspired by my dearest friend Kelly Meyer, founder of The Teaching garden to get us all outside, weeding, planting and harvesting as a family. This teaches my daughter about our seasonal cycles. We talk to our child about respecting each living being, as every ladybug and ant has God's fingerprint on it.

Of course, I have often asked myself, what other actions can we take to care for this fragile world of ours? I asked a few of my eco-minded friends, and their insights have proved invaluable to me. Here's some of their sage advice:

Danny Seo, born in 1977 on Earth Day, is an environmental lifestyle expert and the author of Conscious Style Home: Eco-Friendly Living for the 21st Century and Simply Green. When he was 12, he started the environmental organization Earth 2000. His mission: To save the planet. Some 21 years later, he has since taught over 25,000 children how to shrink their carbon footprint. Here are his five favorite tips for helping kids go green.

1. Let Them Decide How to Contribute. The whole point of eco-altruism is that the act itself is self-appointed and selfless. Creating a "chore" that requires your child to do something on a regular basis defeats the whole point of them discovering an act that they do. Ask them what issues in the world might worry them. Perhaps it's the Gulf oil spill or seeing their neighborhood trashcans overflowing with refuse. Once you've figured out what moves them to action, you can figure out a way to contribute to the greater good together.

2. Reward Positive Contributions. One project I love is to show my utility bills to my niece and nephew so they can see that it costs money -- and resources -- to power a home. Then I like to share with them easy tips for to reduce energy use -- turning off lights, not lingering in front of the fridge, unplugging electronics when not in use, adjusting the thermostat when they're away from home. After a month of putting these techniques into action, we compared last month's bill with the new one. Then, I gave them the difference in cash. This is a lesson that sticks!

3. Break the Mall Habit. I'm astonished that many families designate the weekends for going shopping at the mall, as if it's a recreational activity and not a chore. There's nothing wrong with shopping, but shop when you need to, not when you're bored. Instead, use a gorgeous Saturday to visit state parks, gardens or the beach, and do some kind of fun outdoor recreational activity. Nothing inspires a child more than seeing Mother Nature in all her glory.

4. Try to Do Without. Pick one habit the whole family knows they need to break and try to break it together. Paper towels usage is a good place to start. Go cold turkey and replace them with cloth towels and micro-fiber towels for cleaning up. You'll soon learn that something you "desperately need" may not actually be something you need at all.

5. Introduce Meatless Mondays. Environmentalists agree that going vegetarian is one of the biggest contributions you can make towards a better planet. Ounce for ounce, a plant-based diet versus a meat-based one uses far less energy and resources and significantly reduces greenhouse gasses. Going meatless just once a week is an easy and simple way to contribute and ease into a plant-based diet. Try to eat seasonally, too. Bring the kids to the farmers market or your local pick-your-own farm to choose their own fruits and vegetables. If they know where it came from, they'll be more interested in trying it.

Susan Usha Dermond is the director of the Living Wisdom School and the author of Calm and Compassionate Children: A Handbook. She believes that encouraging children to tune into and notice nature in all its aspects "awakens their heart's feelings toward the earth and her creatures." That goes further in helping them become adults who make 'green' choices than "environmental education about gloom and doom." While kids are young, she says, it's wonderful to help them observe and bond with nature. "Most children love nature spontaneously when the adults around them support their enthusiasm," she says. And that passion almost invariably leads to a more eco-conscious life. Here's how she helps her students connect to the natural world.

1) Educate yourself not to be repulsed by insects, but to take in interest in identifying them and discovering what they live on and how they fit into the natural order. Check out lots of books from the children's section of the library and learn together. Insects are one part of nature that everyone, everywhere can find.

2) Another aspect of nature everyone can see is the moon. Buy a calendar with the moon phases on it, and keep track of where the moon is in its cycle. Look for it in the sky just before bedtime and right after waking. It's often visible in the morning, even after the sun has risen.

3) Once a week, go for a nature walk on the same route. It can be in a park or neighborhood with yards. Make a game out of noticing all the differences from the week before. What has bloomed? How have the leaves changes? What insects or birds can you hear?

4) Take your children with you to a farmer's market. Make up little challenges to help them tune into what is there. Ask them, can we buy four different colors today? Which foods come from roots, which from leaves, and which from flowers (i.e. fruit)? Buy a plant or flowers and talk to the seller about how to care for it.

5) Visit rivers, mountains, beaches, lakes, and special places in nature whenever you can. Model responsible behavior by picking up others' trash and staying on trails. But most importantly, share your own enthusiasm and appreciation of the air, plants, animals, birds and water. Giving your children happy memories of family times outdoors is a legacy that they will carry into adulthood.

Cristina Carlino is a mother, poet and the founder and creator of philosophy, one of the most beloved brands in the cosmetic industry. Her new book, The Changing Room: A Mother's Journal of Gratitude to Her Little Girl, is available at amazon.com. 100% of proceeds go to Mariska Hargitay's Joyful Heart Foundation, which supports survivors of rape, incest and abuse. Please visit Cristina's fan page at www.facebook.com/cristinacarlino

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