The Urban Farm: Greening Small City Spaces

Urban farming is all the rage these days. Where I live, back lanes are becoming orchards and community gardens continue to sprout. Organizations like the Seattle Urban Farm Company are growing, harvesting, and selling food growing on suburban micro-farms. Great stuff!

I love local food. Yes, I know that there is controversy about whether local is better, more efficient. But to me, local food seems to be the logical choice – the ultimate in self-reliance. Perhaps there are savings of scale to be had in mass food production elsewhere in the world. However, the logic of picking food from your own backyard, and the community of finding local farmers who can supply your food leaves me happy, full, and feeling rewarded.

We’re members of a local CSA, a community supported agriculture model that requires an initial investment of money for a summer and fall’s worth of produce. Every week, our farmer drops off a box of food that he picked the day before. We collect it from a central location on our way to do other errands. No, we don’t get to choose what’s in the box, but what he grows is a reflection of what grows well and abundantly in our climate.

We’re also members of Urban Grains, the first wheat farm around these parts in a long, long time to grow wheat for people, not for animal fodder. This past weekend we got more than 40 pounds of whole wheat flour, and this weekend we made local pancakes. Yes, those of you from the wheat belt may guffaw, but for those of us from the rainy Pacific Northwest, this is an accomplishment.

After the success of the book Plenty: The 100 Mile Diet, the idea of a zero mile diet is also becoming popular – zero miles being your yard, of course – or your townhouse deck, or a window box. Yet many of urban-dwellers live in tiny spaces with little or no land. What are some creative ways to bring the zero mile diet home in an urban environment? 

Plant Tiles
Imagine a kitchen backsplash that doubles as a herb garden. Plant tiles are tiles that have a little pocket in them, perfect for a small plant. Now, I doubt that you’re going to feed the whole family off these, but they would be a good addition to an indoor food system and especially convenient for areas in the kitchen. If proximity is the key to using the fruits of your urban garden, these are about as close as you’re going to get.

Hanging Baskets
Ah, the hanging basket. While memories of jade plants from the 1970s might ensue, a modern indoor or deck basket doesn’t need to be full of hippie goodness. It can be full of food! I’ve grown crops in these baskets before. The only drawback is the need to water them on a very consistent basis. Choose a basket material that is not exceptionally well-drained or choose dry-area plants, or your lettuce and tomatoes will wilt in warmer weather.

Gutter Gardens
I love the idea of the rain gutter garden. These gardens grow in reused rain gutters on the side of a house. Place them where you have the most amenable weather for vegetables. You no longer need to be constrained to the places where you actually have space on the ground. Imagine a house covered in rain gutters like the ancient terraces, growing food one on top of the other. Yes, this isn’t an indoor garden, but it’s definitely a clever use of tight urban spaces.

Living Walls
What is a living wall? It’s a panel that houses plants. Water moves down the panel and through the roots of the plants. These can be house plants that purify the air in your home, or they can be herbs and other food plants. A living wall is ideal for the deck of an apartment or townhouse. For those who have limited garden space or simply want to make use of every last part of it, vertical food growing is where it’s at.

The Sunroom
If you’re blessed enough to live in a home with a sunroom that gets quite warm in the summer, you’re blessed with a miniature greenhouse. Use your in-home microclimate to your advantage. Where I live in the temperate zone, consistent sun and warmth are a rarity, but a sunroom would allow me to extend my growing season into the fall and start plants like tomatoes comfortably in early spring.

There are so many clever innovations that can turn a home into an urban farm. So dig deep – not too deep, as not to disturb the neighbors – and dig in!

Wildlife in Towns and Cities

A great way to spark children’s interest and enthusiasm in all things related to caring for our environment is to encourage them to take an interest in wild animals. There is nothing quite like the rush of excitement that a young child will feel when he gets close to his first fox, coyote, or eagle.

If you lived in the wilds of Africa, your children would have the thrill of watching elephants, lions, and gazelles. But even for those of us who live in the middle of a big city, wildlife is all around us. We just need to look a bit harder…

Your Local Park

A park is an obvious place to start looking for your local urban wildlife. Your city might have ballparks, dog parks, or historical parks. Your nearest park might be a bit of everything, with games and also places full of grass and trees. Chances are that there is a park nearby your home where, if you sit quietly on a bench and pay attention, you will start to notice some wildlife.

The first thing you are likely to notice will probably be some birds! City birds are generally quite accustomed to being quite close to humans, and they may even approach you, hoping you will have some breadcrumbs to give them.

Try looking for birds a bit more carefully than you have in the past. Predators such as hawks may sit still at the top of a tree for long periods of time without moving. Keep an eye out for birds flying in and out of trees, and in the spring you might be lucky and spot where they are nesting. Look out for trees with holes in their trunks, as some kinds of birds nest in hollow trees.

Squirrels or chipmunks may be common in your area. They are great fun to watch; look out for them chasing each other and playing, or foraging for food in the undergrowth. At the right time of year, you will see young squirrels, which you can recognize by their smaller size and thinner tails.

When you take nature walks in your local park, try these ideas:

Avoid the crowds and walk through patches of trees or grass where there are less people
Walk quietly, and you will see more wildlife
If you see an animal and want to get closer, approach it from an angle and don’t stare straight at it; this way it will be less likely to think you are about to hunt it!
Carry a notebook and pencil to record your observations
Take your time and see how many different animals you can spot
As well as different kinds of animals, try to observe animals of the same species exhibiting a variety of behaviors

Streets, Alleys, and Sidewalks

City wildlife is not restricted to the green bits. Especially at dusk and dawn, animals like foxes and opossums often roam the city, usually looking for food; our trash cans provide a good source of nutrition! If you’re walking through the city when it’s dark, keep your eyes open and you may be surprised at what you see. Remember to go along quietly, and listen carefully too – you will probably hear the rustling of mice and rats.

The nocturnal mammals, along with the silent but spectacular owls, are best spotted at night. During the day, you’re more likely to see birds and insects. Even on a barren bit of sidewalk, you might find a highway of ants going to and from their nest.

Watery Wildlife

If there is a pond, lake, or stream in your city, you can have great fun discovering what animals live in the water. Ducks and gulls might be the first you spot, but a bit of deeper investigation with a net and a jam jar could reveal anything from water spiders and shrimps to frogs and salamanders. If you catch these, perhaps to make a drawing of them in your nature notebook, it is always kindest to put them gently back in the same location that you found them, once you’ve finished studying them.

Your Backyard

Whether you have a small dirt backyard, a patch of grass, or even just a balcony or window box, the outdoor bit of your own home is a great place to watch animals. The more you can do to make your backyard a friendly place for animals, the more variety you will see. Animals will appreciate clean drinking water, and a variety of plants will make a richer habitat that will be enjoyed by insects like butterflies and bees as well as birds and small mammals. Your own backyard can turn into a little haven that will help make the city a more wildlife-friendly place!


Bake Fabulous Bread in Your Own $20 Outdoor Earth Oven

If you enjoy baking or cooking, and you have the sort of DIY attitude that drives you to want to create, you can build your own outdoor earth oven for as little as $20! An earth oven can be built with little more than some sand, clay, brick, stone, sawdust, and recycled beer bottles, and will bake some of the tastiest breads you’ve ever had.

Let’s get this straight: breads and pizzas are best baked on a wood-fired, super hot brick hearth. Your kitchen oven just doesn’t do the same job that a big masonry or cob oven can do. You’ll know the difference as soon as you taste your fresh baked bread with its crispy crust, perfect crumb, and slight wood-fired flavor.

While brick ovens can cost upwards of a thousand dollars to construct, an earth oven can be made using locally available and recycled materials. (Yes, a masonry oven may last longer, but the difference in skill level and cost to build them versus an earth oven is huge!) Made mostly of cob (a mix of sand and clay), an earth oven is very inexpensive to build—I recently built a 22.5” diameter oven for less than $20! (The only real cost to me was the fire brick, which cost $1 each.) An earth oven also presents an appealing option to individuals wanting to bake outdoors, so that one’s home does not heat up from indoor baking in summertime.

An earth oven is wood-fired. A small oven can be heated to over 700 degrees in two hours of firing, and then the coals are removed to bake directly on the hearth. In order to make maximum use of the heat, you can bake pizza, followed by loaves of bread, and muffins, pies, or cookies, and then meat stews and beans overnight. The thermal mass of the oven allows for excellent heat storage, and hence, a long chain of breads and foods can be cooked, making maximum use of the energy of the wood.

For more information on how to build your own earth oven, I highly recommend that you check out Kiko Denzer’s Build Your Own Earth Oven for complete details! Highly recommended!

Masonry Heaters are Traditional and Efficient Sources of Wood Heat

Masonry heaters have long been built in the colder climates of Europe, but they have taken quite a while to catch on in America. They are massive in size, but they burn wood very cleanly and store heat for long periods of time, making them much more efficient than typical wood stoves you can acquire commercially.

Instead of the actual burning wood providing most of the heat in a space, a masonry heater is fired for a long period of time (depending on the size of the system, but typically several hours), and then the thermal mass of the heater provides a comfortable radiant heat in your living space.

Masonry heaters are massive systems, and a big undertaking to design and construct. They are very large in size (sometimes they need their own foundation for support), and can be expensive, too. But the benefits far outweigh this: they are one of the cleanest ways to burn cordwood, and the quality of the heat is much greater than that from a wood stove. You can save much in the way of your winter heat costs with a masonry heater.

For more information and details about masonry heaters, I encourage you to check out The Masonry Heater Association of America, which publishes a portfolio with plans for several different heaters that have been thoroughly tested. The website also includes many details about building code issues, information for manufacturers, designers, and professional heater builders.

Eating Greens and Loving It

Reducing the amount of meat we eat is a good way to live a more environmentally friendly family life.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (Livestock’s Long Shadow – Environmental Issues and Options, 2006) livestock production is a large contributor to many environmental problems including pollution (water and air), erosion and loss of topsoil, excessive usage of energy and resources such as oil, degradation of biodiversity and deforestation.

“Environmental Vegetarianism” is a term coined to describe people who make a conscious decision to remove meat (and sometimes all animal based foods including dairy products and eggs) in order to benefit the environment.

However, if you and your family are not prepared to give up meat, simply eating less meat and more vegetables and other plant based produce is a great way to reduce your family’s carbon footprint. And it can be fun, simple, good for your budget and best of all, really tasty!

Meat as a Garnish

In our home, meals took a turn for the tastier when we started thinking of the meat, chicken or fish part of the meal as a garnish rather than the centerpiece of the food. Instead of having a big piece of meat, a generous helping of potatoes or rice and then adding one or two vegetables as an afterthought, I would focus on the vegetables first.

I’d figure out what tasty vegetables I could prepare as the largest part of the meal? Then I’d add some meat as a garnish.

Of course in order to do this successfully, you need to be confident about cooking your vegetables. Luckily this is really easy to do.

Easy and Delicious Ways to Cook Vegetables

What puts many kids off vegetables, even through to adulthood? Overcooked vegetables that have been boiled to a point where they have lost all of their texture and most of their taste!

Boiling is not a great way to cook vegetables as much of the taste and nutrients seep out into the water during cooking. If you do boil vegetables, follow these tips to ensure they retain some goodness, flavor and texture:

Bring the water to the boil before putting the vegetables into the pot
Check the vegetables with a fork and as soon as they are soft enough to easily pierce through, remove the pan from the hob and drain the vegetables
Remember that slightly underdone is much tastier than slightly overdone!

If you want to retain the maximum goodness and flavor in your vegetables, try roasting or pan frying them. Both of these methods of cooking are very easy and produce delicious results.

Roasted Vegetables

Peel your veg and chop into largish pieces (approximately 2” x 1” is about right, don’t be fussy, the size is not all that important). Place into a baking dish and drizzle with olive oil. Shake the pan to coat the pieces with the oil and roast in a medium oven. Allow about 35 minutes for hard vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes and about 20 minutes for soft vegetables such as peppers and tomatoes. Give the pan a thorough shake about half way through the cooking time.

A particularly nice variation on the above is to drizzle the veg with runny honey as well as olive oil. Kids will love the resulting sweet flavor.

Pan Fried Vegetables

Slice the vegetables (as thinly as possible for hard vegetables like carrots, but thicker for soft vegetables like mushrooms). Warm a small amount of olive oil in a large wok or frying pan, add the vegetables and cook over a low-medium heat until soft enough to eat (a bit of crunch is nice so don’t over do them).

Which Vegetables Should I Use?

The great thing about the two methods of cooking vegetables described above is that they are so versatile.

To get you started, here’s a basic list that will give you a nice pan of roasted vegetables:

Butternut squash
Red onions
Red, yellow or green peppers

And for pan frying a starter list might be:

Green beans
Thinly sliced carrots

Bear in mind that pretty much any kind of vegetable can be pan fried or roasted. Why not experiment with new types of vegetables? In particular it’s a really good idea to try to use seasonal vegetables, preferably locally produced ones. This means fresher produce, better taste and of course less negative environmental impact.

Cooking with Your Kids

If you are able to involve your kids as you experiment with cooking different kinds of vegetables, they are more likely to be willing to try out new flavors. Children of all ages will enjoy joining you in the kitchen and if you play your cards right, you might just find that after a while you’re getting a night off as they enjoy cooking for you for a change!


The Permaculture Ethic

I’m in love with permaculture. It’s an ethic that completely reflects what I believe in creating a world in which people work with the earth’s ecosystems to create a place that is more wonderful than when they arrived.

How great would that be? Yes, I know we’re a far cry from it, but the ethic is there, and it’s growing.

What is permaculture? Permaculture is variously defined as permanent culture or permanent agriculture. As an agricultural system, it’s agriculture that works like the earth’s systems. Think of a garden that acts like a forest or a grassland, rather than of the long rows of the same crop.

As a teacher of ecology and as a gardener, I strive to understand the connections between plants, animals, water, soil, air and all of the other living and nonliving things that make up the world. This includes people, of course. Human ecology is the study of how people relate to the earth and to each other, as members of their local ecosystem.

People have always used what the earth provides. However, as our species has become more successful, we’ve been able to use more and more without helping the earth grow. The most dominant global cultures now see themselves as apart from the earth’s ecosystems rather than a part of them.

How do we renew our connections to the earth and craft a better relationship – one that renews both people and ecosystems? We do it by thinking as part of the ecosystem. We do it by taking from the ecosystem and by giving back, in equal parts.

Instead of living in a home that takes energy that is made from fossil fuels and uses it in a profligate manner, we begin to create a home that uses very little energy. We harvest this energy from renewable sources like the sun.

Instead of sending our water to the sewage system and then into our oceans, we reuse our grey water in our gardens and grow food with that water. We use composting toilets. We treat what we once discarded as the resource that it is.

Instead of eating food that grows far, far away, we create community gardens in vacant lots and we garden on our decks and in our suburban lots – instead of growing grass as our primary crop. We create a rich ecosystem that hosts a variety of plants that are well-suited to our climate, and we use companion planting to attract beneficial animals to pollinate our plants and eat the animals who eat our vegetables.

What if we were to think as part of the ecosystem in our homes, our businesses, and our communities? What if we thought about how our decisions could enhance our local ecosystems? Instead of trying to mitigate damage caused by our actions that do not mesh with the local ecology, we’d find ourselves asking how we could best improve our communities through our actions.

What if we treated our communities as the ecological groups that they are? What if we treated ourselves as members of those communities, no more or less important than the other plants, animals, rocks, soil, air and water that inhabit that place?

We could end up with communities that are:
Diverse. We would be able to explore, use, and celebrate the richness of the human and ecological communities.
Abundant. We would use what the earth provides in such a way that we would not feel limited, but we would feel joyful in our use and reuse and in what we would give back to the earth.
Resilient, in that ecosystems have ways of making sure that there is a plant or animal to step into a role when another cannot fill it.
Simple and complex. Using sun to make energy is a simple idea. However, the ways that this happens are amazingly complex. We can do it with solar cells, plants do it through photosynthesis. Ecosystems appear to thrive by themselves, yet they are supported by a complex system of interrelationships.

When we go beyond reducing our impacts on the earth and think instead of becoming a positive part of the earth’s systems once again, that is permaculture. That is a life, a community, and a world that I would love to see.


Introducing Children to Environmental Issues

As environmentally aware parents, we want to educate our children about environmental issues, and bring them up to consider their own impact on the environment. We want our children to learn to behave in a responsible fashion, making decisions based not only on their own needs and wants but also considering the impact on the natural world around them.

However, it is important to be careful about how you communicate with your children regarding environmental issues. It can be terrifying for a young child to learn about global warming, for example. Children’s vivid imaginations can overwhelm them, and they can easily translate, for example, an increased risk of flooding to the thought that there is an imminent risk that their own home may be swept away and their whole family killed. That kind of terrorized thinking can be extremely damaging for a young child’s emotional development, and is certainly not conducive to raising a happy, responsible child.

Psychologists have coined a new term, “eco-anxiety” to describe excessive anxiety and distress due to worries over environmental problems. Some adults experience panic attacks, sleeplessness and other anxiety related symptoms due to their belief of impending world wide doom. This is neither helpful nor conducive to an attitude that fosters positive action. Imagine how much more frightening this kind of thinking can be for a young child.

In times of war, children can be traumatized by the constant presence of danger, brought home to them in the form of attack drills or bomb scares. However, at least during wartime children are never led to believe that they themselves are somehow responsible for the possibility of enemy attacks. This is why in some ways the threat of environmental catastrophe is worse: children may easily internalize the idea that not only is their world in danger of imminent destruction but this may be their own fault!

Letting children know that they can help the environment by taking simple measures such as switching lights off when they leave a room, not creating unnecessary waste and walking or cycling instead of being driven is a good idea – but always be careful to phrase such suggestions positively. Don’t ever threaten a child by saying that he’s contributing to global warming if he forgets to do one of these things.

Keep Environmental Issues Discussions Age Appropriate

When you talk to your children about environmental issues, bear in mind their age, maturity and sensitivity. For children under the age of about seven, you should be especially careful not to share too much detailed information about the potential effects of environmental problems. For example, if your child loves animals, he could be very traumatized by the knowledge that polar bears are losing their habitat and even drowning because of global warming. Be aware of this and provide reassurance to counter levels of fear and guilt that could be too disturbing.

School Age Children

At school age, many children want more detailed information on environmental issues. Be sure to share this information in a positive way, emphasizing what your child and your family can do to help. Do not dwell excessively on potential global catastrophes, and if your child becomes alarmed or anxious provide plenty of reassurance. It is important to tell your child that the government, authorities and adults are tackling these issues and that they can help, but are not responsible for “doing it all”. A child should never feel that the fate of the world rests on his shoulders!

Teenagers and the Environment

Teenagers can be vociferous and effective spokespeople for the environment. At this age, you should be able to communicate openly and honestly with your teenager regarding environmental issues. Encourage them to investigate issues for themselves and start to develop their own viewpoints and ideas.

At this age your child may also start to have political opinions, and have a broader appreciation of the role of government and corporations in providing solutions to environmental issues. You can encourage such wider thinking by sourcing information from local corporations and “green” political parties.

Your Child, Your Family, Your World

Talking with your child about environmental issues can be a very positive thing to do; just be sure that you are doing so with due consideration for how much information they are able to emotionally cope with at any particular age.

Remember to focus on the positive steps that your child can realistically take to help. Keep your instructions and suggestions simple for young children, and never let them think that environmental problems are their fault.

Tackling global warming and other important environmental issues can only be done by cooperative efforts, so don’t let your child feel responsible for more than he can do. Most importantly of all, be sure that the adults in your family are setting a positive example.

Water Miser, Water Lover: Creative Ways to Conserve Water in the Home

From greywater showers to the old-fashioned rain barrel, here are some creative ways to conserve water in the home.We humans love water. We love it hot in showers and hot tubs. We love it cold to drink or in pools on a warm day. But other animals and plants love it too. How can we share this precious resource with them, keep it clean, and enjoy it ourselves?

You probably turn off the tap when you brush your teeth. Beyond the tap, here are some new ways to become more frugal with your water use. Honor our precious water by using it again and again.

Do the One Flush, Two Flush                                                          
Looking for ways to conserve water? Allemande right over to the toilet bowl. New low flow toilets are amazingly effective. Some are even dual flush, with two buttons for … larger and smaller loads, shall we say? Going beyond the low flow toilet? The Aqus Water Saver toilet system goes a step further, allowing you to reuse water from the bathroom sink in your toilet.

Go Grey in the Garden                                                               
Grey water isn’t always grey, but it is water that has been used before. This is the water you use in your sink or shower. It may have some soap and food waste in it, but it can be used again in the garden or for flushing the toilet. The simplest way to reuse your grey water is to place a dishpan in your sink. As you wash fruit and vegetables, clean your hands or pre-rinse dishes, collect the water in the dishpan and use it to water your garden. This water is not all that soapy and would normally head down the drain to the sewage treatment plant.

Rain, Rain, Come Again, Drip Into My Barrel                                              
Rain barrels have come a long way from the traditional keg-style open barrel. They come in all sizes and shapes, many suitable for installing right against the wall of your home. Attach a downspout diverter to your outdoor spout to catch the rainwater as it falls and funnel it into the barrel.

Sing in the (Low Flow, Greywater) Shower                                        
Low flow showerheads are widely available. Installing one is fairly simple and will dramatically reduce your water use, especially if you love long showers.

Looking to reduce your water use even more? Due to its water crisis, Australia is at the forefront of showerhead innovation. Recent inventions include the Quench Showerhead, a shower head that allows you to wash, lather, and rinse. After the soap has gone down the drain, turn the shower into an automatic recirculation mode. This allows you to take a long, hot shower that uses only 4 liters of water.

The Aqualim is another Australian shower invention. The inventor was inspired by his teenage daughter’s epic showers. He created a showerhead that allows you to pre-set a desired amount of water. As you get close to your designated water use, the Aqualim gradually turns the water flow down and off.

A combination of new and old technologies can help you honor and conserve our water. Whether it’s with a simple dishpan or a water recirculation system, you can use and reuse water in your home.

Why Ecoliteracy?

A child walks into the forest.
Or does she?

In this age of stranger danger and dwindling open spaces, children interact with video screens more than natural places. Natural places are inaccessible to children. Vacant lots are fenced off. Children are asked to stay inside after school to stay safe, or they have no time for free, unstructured play.

In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv talks about this phenomenon, calling it “nature-deficit disorder.” The journalist interview three thousand families about the changing nature of childhood, and what he found inspired him to write a book that explores the need for children to connect with nature. It became a bestseller.

We are born needing to connect with other life, whether this life is a pet, a garden, or a forest. Heading outside is healthy for our physical, mental and emotional well-being. An American biologist named Edward Wilson has named this affinity for other life “biophilia.”
Unfortunately, today many of us connect nature with fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of extinction and climate change. Fear for our future.  In our classrooms, how do we build on children’s desire to connect with other life? How do take fear and move into positive action? When we teach ecological literacy, we can do both of these things.

What is ecological literacy?

When we teach ecological literacy, we teach about how nature works.

We learn that:
Life is cooperative. The patterns and networks of species, communities, and systems sustain each other.
Life needs to be diverse. Diversity means that we can change.
Every living and non-living thing is connected. Life is about relationships. Ecosystems are communities. Species work with each other in relationships. And yes, this sometimes means that they eat each other. That’s a relationship too.
Everything starts with the sun. This is what feeds the plants that sustain life on earth.
Matter cycles. Every piece of sand and drop of water has been here forever, and it will always be here, albeit in a different form.
Ecosystems do not have waste. Waste is always food for another organism. If an animal poops, something has to eat that!
People need nature to survive. We need clean air, water, and soil. We need plants and other animals to work with us and sustain us.

Why teach ecoliteracy?

Imagine a classroom or a home that fosters a sense of wonder for the natural world and encourages children to explore that world, both freely and as part of structured projects.

This place would foster joy in our relationship with the rest of nature and encourage children to have an ongoing relationship with natural places, whether these are a corner of an urban schoolyard or a wilderness area.

Together, adults and children would learn that they rely on nature and that they are part of nature. This would provide a foundation so that children could inquire, learn and grow as life-long citizens of the planet.

Why should we create such a space in our classrooms and in our homes?

Literacy is about teaching building blocks – letters, words – so that early readers can comprehend written language. However, the objective is not only to yield people who know how to identify words. The objective is also to create a life long love of reading. We teach literacy so that our students yearn to ask questions and find answers and learn about their place in the world.

The same is true for ecological literacy. Through ecological literacy, children and adults grow to understand nature and their place in nature. We foster connections with nature and encourage people to move beyond fear to explore, learn and act on their knowledge.

Why ecoliteracy?
So that our children can walk into a forest and feel a joyful connection with that place.

Suggested Resources
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
A look at the importance of nature in childhood that explores ways to renew connections between children and natural places.

Sharing Nature with Children and Sharing the Joy of Nature by Joseph Cornell
Activities to inspire reconnection with nature.


TV, Kids and Your Family Carbon Footprint

According to Energy Star, a U.S. government program promoting energy efficient products, televisions account for 4% of household electricity usage in the USA – sufficient electrical power to supply the entire population of New York state households for a year!

Until recently an Energy Star ratings scheme didn’t even exist for televisions, but since November 2008 this is in place and you can now make a more informed decision when purchasing a new TV, and ideally select the most environmentally friendly type.

However, regardless of which model of television you have, you can make a significant impact on your electricity usage by watching it less and turning it off (not to stand by mode) more.

All too often, kids and teenagers like to turn the TV on as soon as they come into the house. With some households having a television in nearly every room, lots of children have become accustomed to having the TV as an almost constant background to their activities.

Not only is this a shocking waste of electrical power, but it’s unhealthy for your child for lots of reasons. A TV blaring or murmuring in the background fragments a child’s concentration and feeds frequent negative messages and information into his subconscious. Getting used to this electrical “babysitter” always being on, especially if this happens from a young age, can prevent your child from becoming comfortable with spending quiet time alone.

Plan Your TV Usage

The television is a wonderful invention and there are many educational and beneficial programs that will enhance your children’s understanding of the world around them. To make the most of these benefits, and avoid the negative impact a TV can have on children and on family life, it is essential to plan your TV usage, and teach your children to do the same.

The best way to tackle the problem of the “always on” TV will depend on the age of your children.

TV for Babies and Toddlers

You should never, ever use the television as a babysitter. During their waking day, babies and toddlers need almost constant interaction with humans, and should not be left sitting in front of a television alone for long stretches of time.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend TV at all for babies under the age of 2, and for older children the Academy recommends that TV should be restricted to a maximum of 2 hours per day of non-violent, educational programs.

If you do allow your baby or toddler to watch television, you should plan to stay involved, interacting with your child and discussing the program as you watch it together.

TV for School Age Children

School age is when the TV can really come into its own as an educational tool. It’s a good idea to buy a high quality TV paper and plan TV watching as a family, giving priority to programs that will help the children with topics that they are studying at school. Make a rule that the TV is only turned on when there is a planned program to watch. Turning the TV on at random times and channel hopping is no good for anyone!

For school age children it is very important to set rules with regard to how much TV can be watched. An absolute maximum of 2 hours per day is recommended.

Whenever possible, a parent should watch together with the child. This allows you to quickly become aware of any inappropriate programs. Even in programs that you usually think are fine for your kids to watch it is likely that something you would consider inappropriate will crop up from time to time. If you are watching with your child, this gives you a chance to point out items or episodes that you feel don’t fit with your family’s values.

TV for Teenagers

Even if you have tried to instill good TV watching habits in your children from a young age, teenagers generally present unique challenges. It’s natural for kids to challenge the boundaries at this age, and it’s important to allow them to start making some significant decisions for themselves.

If you can avoid allowing televisions in the bedroom, this is half the battle! Encourage your teenagers to talk about what they have seen on television, and allow them to foster their own opinions, while continuing to present your own values in a consistent but not overbearing way.

Good sleep hygiene is very important for teenagers, so the most important rule you should enforce at this age is a strict time cutoff for watching TV during the evening.

Television should be a useful and educational tool in your family, and approaching it from that angle will give you and your family the most benefit, while also preventing the unnecessary wastage of resources that is caused by unthinking “always on” TV usage.