Kids and Environmental History

05/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As kids come outside this month, with seedlings in hand, smiles on their faces and posters of polar bears in tow, we need to remind them of the history of environmentalism. Our recent celebration of Earth Day not only marked the celebration of our planet, it marked a historical change in environmental thought. It is through understanding history that kids will be able to find themselves in the great time-line of humanity. Who were the great environmental heroes? What were the important environmental events? Understanding these stories -- both real and imagined -- will make their efforts more significant every day of the year, and their one individual effort less seemingly futile. We need to share more of this positive change, not just the fears. Good history, just like good news, is hard to find-but it's out there. We just have to find it and bring it to kids' attention -- and ours.

Young people possess a unique ability to inspire tremendous environmental and social progress, but they need a little help from the elder generations. Despite the growing trend of 'green', kids are spending less and less time in nature in this age of the internet, video games and television. A recent Australian study showed that of nearly 1,400 10- to 12-year-olds, 37% typically spent a half-hour or less being active outside. Other studies have shown the behavioral benefits of unstructured outdoor play. To further the problem, when kids and young adults do spend time in the great outdoors, there is often a lack of appreciation or understanding of what they are experiencing.

But there is one way of engaging kids that hasn't really been used yet: entertaining historical fiction, coupled with 'real history.' Perhaps you are surprised. It may seem a strange fit to say "history" in an age of global warming, technology, and genetic engineering, but people have interacted with -- and sought to understand -- the natural world since the beginning of time. Even adults may not know the long standing evolution of environmental thought, such as from the creation of the world's first national park in 1872 to the dust bowl and responsible farming.

Stories can highlight past struggles and successes and explain how these prior experiences influence environmentalism today. By giving kids the context of their own efforts, they'll connect with individuals and groups in the past that have made a difference. This is why Earth Month is so exciting. It is a positive outlet for kids, where they can feel the efforts of humanity coming together, from generation-to-generation. Kids may not entirely understand the source of the positivity, but they can feel it. In doing so, they are better able to recognize the significance of their own efforts, while gaining a deeper understanding of their surroundings.

Happy Earth Month.