Dear Umbra,

In my city, environmental awareness might as well be some late-night, budget infomercial that nobody thinks about except to laugh at. I’m trying to organize a series of interactive presentations in area schools to educate and engage kids in a more progressive approach to greening up our lives and our city. Many of these kids have heard all the normal shticks: don’t run water when you’re brushing your teeth, turn off the light when you leave a room. These mantras are a boring echo to them. Could you give me 10 Things a kid can immediately do in his or her life to make an impact, that perhaps are a little more creative and thought-provoking than light bulbs and littering (not that those aren’t important too).

Amy Y.
Philadelphia, Penn.

Dearest Amy,

From your letter I’ve decided that you are great with the children and might be able to transform the following suggestion into actual good teaching. Years ago I worked briefly in a program that brought theater to schools, and I had an, um, acerbic boss. Many things she said have stuck with me, unfortunately, but one of them was interesting. She believed that theater should not be designed for children; rather, that children were capable of absorbing adult theater and should not be given something dumbed-down in the assumption that they couldn’t handle “real” theater.

They’ve got the whole world in their hands …

In that vein, I suggest that you use the Top 10 lists for adults, and build an interactive presentation that asks kids to think how they fit in to the environmental picture. (I compiled those Top 10 lists a few years back, and the only update I would make is to place more emphasis on eating lower on the food chain.)

Turning off toothbrushing water, to use your example, is about water conservation. There are many other important ways to conserve water in the home. Could you make a presentation that outlines the problem with wasted water, the various household water uses, and then asks kids to think of and choose one water conservation goal for themselves? Perhaps peeing in the shower would light up some of those jaded eyes.

Kids who can’t drive are often left out of the “reduce your mileage” equation. Is it possible to discuss auto emissions with middle-school children, and guide them in a discussion about how kids might help with this most-significant problem? They might talk with their parents, arrange their own carpool, decide to ride a bike, or write moving letters to the editor in support of new bus lines.

We think of food choices as similar to cars for children, because they aren’t the shoppers or cooks, but I’ve seen a successful Farm-to-Cafeteria program that was dependent on the participation of energetic rural teens. Kids can do the work to educate their family about the best fish to buy, or make a personal pledge to avoid meat on Wednesdays, or even lobby their school to add local or organic items to the menu.

Reduce-Reuse-Recycle is one for all ages, but I wonder if one particular angle will work well with kids: small electronics. The environmental problems with small consumer electronics include the devastation wrought by mining and the end-of-life disposal. The issues are compelling, and for kids of the cell-phone age there is a lot of room for feeling good about recycling their electronics, collecting their friends’ electronics, donating electronics, etc. Electronics are way more interesting and immediate than paper and cans.

These, as they say, are just a few ideas. Kids will come up with much better ideas about the role they can play in the regular old Top 10. Hopefully engaging them in the decisions will make their activism more than a boring echo.