Teaching Kids to Clean Up — Globally

We’re coming up on Earth Day in just over a week: Thursday, April 22. The 2010 event will be our 40th annual opportunity to learn more about how to care for and protect the planet, and to teach others what we know.

Earth Day was conceived as a “teach-in” on the environment by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and originally directed toward college students. We’d now describe the way it took hold, leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970, as “viral.”

I was 13 and in eighth grade that first Earth Day. My parents signed up all of us — the two of them, me and my three brothers — to help clean up a river near where we lived. We kids walked the shore, picking up trash, while my father joined a group of men wrestling tires and rusty, twisted objects out of the muddy water. I watched the pile of discarded appliances and old car parts grow on the riverbank, surprised that people were willing to dump such things into a river.

My mother had been training us not to litter for some years by then. “Not even a gum wrapper,” she’d tell us. If someone dropped a candy wrapper on the sidewalk — a teenage boy, say — she’d accost the fellow right on the street. I’d cringe in the background, embarrassed, while she chewed him out: “Young man, pick up that trash and put it in the trash can. This is your community, too.” I don’t know if her message got through to any of the people she admonished that way, but it certainly got through to me.

We learn best to care about where we live — whether it’s the river across the road, the main street in our community, or the whole planet — when we are young, and when our parents teach us. I still pick up trash, and I tell my children to do the same. As for telling strangers to pick up their litter, it’s a different world now. I don’t confront litterers. But I do pick up what other people drop and throw it away. And I've realized that those early lessons — the river clean-up, even the embarrassing litter lectures — led me to other actions, more education, and broader advocacy for the environment.

I don’t know what we’ll do to honor Earth Day on this, its 40th, year. I hope that whatever we do, our children will be able to look back in another 40 years and think of how it helped form their respect and care for the planet.

Learn more
Learn the history of Earth Day (AMC Outdoors March/April 2010).
Look for Earth Day events near you.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Kristen Laine.