Earth Day is celebrated in classrooms and many homes around the world on April 22. But it can be a rather meaningless day if the lessons that are taught don’t carry with them opportunities to act in local and immediate ways.
That’s why I think it is a lot more important on Earth Day to concentrate on things kids can actually do themselves to help the environment in small, personal ways, rather than focusing on big, theoretical ideas like global warming or faraway problems like the giant garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean or the demolition of South American rain forests. Those issues can seem unsolvable and depressing to children, whereas there are so many ways they can each make a difference locally if we teach them how.
One of those ways is by protecting their local watershed. Everyone has one. Growing up on the Illinois River, I was very aware of local areas to curb pollution of our primary source of drinking water and scenic recreation. Concerned citizens from my own hometown and neighboring communities worked hard, not only to decrease the amount of garbage we introduced to the river, but also to change the laws affecting how many tons of chemicals and animal waste could be dumped in the watershed from upstream.
Here are a few differentiated watershed related lessons you can introduce to your students this Earth Day, whatever ages you happen to be teaching.
Understand your watershed
You can’t appreciate your local watershed until you really know what it is. Many students don’t realize that watersheds are much bigger than the banks of the area rivers and streams. All the water that runs off when it rains or when snow melts, from all over the town and countryside, is part of the watershed. This area must be protected, too, if the rivers, lakes and oceans are to stay healthy and clean.
Young students may watch a video, like this one from the USDA. They may study a prepared model or build a model of an imaginary watershed to better understand how pollutants wash into rivers and lakes from surrounding land.
Older students may do these same things, but take the lesson a step further by looking at maps of their actual watershed and building a model to simulate the land forms and waterways in their own community.
Get out of the classroom and visit a local river or stream, or assign this as a weekend activity kids can do with their families. Small children need only see the stream, find some examples of pollution and come up with ideas for how they can keep their own garbage from washing into the streams.
Older students may organize a clean-up effort, using gloves and trash bags to remove some of the waste from a the banks of the stream or river under adult supervision. Look out for sharp objects, plastic bottles that may contain the remnants of meth manufacturing, and of course, wildlife.
Even older students can take the effort a step further and research ways they can get involved on the state and local level in organizations which work to protect waterways. These efforts often provide more long term opportunities to keep watersheds clean than a single event.
Parents can get involved, too
There’s no better way for kids of all ages to learn about an important issue than to get involved right alongside their own parents. When parents care enough about the local watersheds to do something positive, their kids will care, too.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers a list of ways whole families can get involved together and make a difference in water quality on their website. Research a few of these together and see if maybe your own family can do something good for your watershed this year.
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