consumerism lifestyle sustainability

How to foster a sustainable childhood

consumer-kidsIn writing the title of this post, it struck me that ‘sustainable childhood’ sounds like Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up. I’m not talking about creating a childhood that can be magically sustained forever of course, but about encouraging children to develop an awareness of the earth and how to live well on it.

It’s a subject that’s on my mind. My wife and I became parents last year, and like any parent, we want our children to share our values. That includes an appreciation for nature, and our role as stewards of the planet we have inherited.  That’s easy enough when children are tiny, but it gets harder as they grow and spend more time away from home, as they become targets for advertising.

The thing that strikes me most is that the lifestyle that we grow up becomes our baseline for what is normal. I had a friend at university who had left home for the first time and, as a vegetarian from birth, he was amazed to find that most people ate meat. He had always believed that meat eaters were in the minority. Conversely, unsustainable lifestyles are passed from one generation to the next – the aforementioned meat eating, a dependency on car transport, flying on holiday, and so on. The habits of parents, from TV watching to cooking choices, become the habits of children.

The status quo is not encouraging. Children live increasingly indoor and sedentary lives, with little connection to nature, leading some to suggest the existence of a ‘nature deficit disorder’. Childhood obesity rates are high, and reported happiness is low – Britain’s children are the unhappiest in Europe.

Can it be different? The WorldWatch Institute thinks so, in a report on sustainable childhoods. “I dream of a world where children can no longer identify more brand logos or Pokémon characters than they can plant species” says Erik Assadourian in the preface, and the report has some ideas about how that might be achieved.

One starting point is to teach sustainability in schools, and the report mentions the Green Flag scheme which recognises schools that do sustainability education well. 39,500 schools in Europe have received the Green Flag so far. Creating natural play environments is also important. My son’s nursery has a woodland area with a hide for watching birds, and others have raised beds or nature reserves, but I’ve walked past too many school “playgrounds” that are a bare asphalt square. Being able to play with water, sticks, mud, all encourage children appreciate and engage with the natural world.

At home, controlling screen time has to be a priority. A recent study in Denmark found that children spend 41 hours a week in front of a screen, about the same amount of time that a parent spends working. That’s time that could be spent playing, running around, creating something. It’s also time in front of advertisers, with a constant drip feed of things to want. A lot of children want to spend time outside, and that should be facilitated. Others don’t, and that’s a lot harder. We had our fair share of arguments with my parents over this ourselves, and however much we resented the confiscation of Nintendo controllers at the time, Mum and Dad were usually right.

Children need plenty of free play time, but controlling screen time is easier if there are planned activities too, especially if there are things families can do together. The report mentions a group in Athens that gets families volunteering together to improve green spaces and maintain parks, and that organises weekly bike rides through the city. There are activities for kids without the parents too of course, such as the Woodcraft folk, a club that encourages hands-on skills and outdoor play.

For children to play outside, there has to be an outside to play in, and that means protecting green space in urban areas, and improving parks and playgrounds. Safe routes to and from them are important too, perhaps requiring slower speed limits on roads through housing estates.

Fundamentally, there has to be cultural change too. As I’ve discussed before, children under 12 years old do not understand the idea of being sold to, and so any advertising aimed at them is inherently exploitative. This has been recognised in Sweden, which banned advertising to under 12s in 1991. We need similar measures in Britain, at the very least controlling what can and can’t be sold to children, if an outright ban proves too challenging for our politicians. Quebec banned fast food ads aimed at children for example, and had the lowest rates of childhood obesity in Canada.

As things currently stand, our little boy loves to be outside, poking about in the flower pots and dragging the watering cans around. I’m hopeful that we can translate his natural curiosity into a lifelong love for the natural world. I’d like to hope that he won’t be unusual, that his generation will be more aware of the earth than mine. But that’s a bigger ask.


  1. YES! Now I am all in favor of strong regions, but controlling advertisement and marketing to kids is something that the EU should take on centrally. We experienced ourselves the impact on our kids, especially since they came into elementary school. Last year our middle daughter Liv (now age 6) still was in Kindergarten. Her wish for Christmas: a Christmas tree. I asked: You want your own tree? And she said: “no no – that we have one, I mean…” In spring 2012 the Kindergarten kicked her out and she jumped a year. She is in grade 2 now. Her wish list this year was staggering. K2 Ice skates, Nintendo DS 3D and a number of other things I had never even heard of before. So that was a dramatic change. Possession of certain things, brand clothing, being up to date about certain TV shows and celebrities and of course the notorious Burger shops all begin to play a role as early as in class two. I hope Liv will be as resilient as her 2 years older sister who is calmly resting within herself and seems have embraced that it is more important who you are and what you do than what you look like and possess….

    1. An interesting example. When you’re little your frame of reference is your home and family. Once you go to school, your peers take over in defining what’s normal, and that’s a fairly dramatic change in your case. But I think strong families win out in the end. It certainly did in our case. The values we grew up with kicked in and the few brand envy arguments we had with my parents seem highly immature now.

      1. I’m sure you are right. Strong – and functional – families do win in the end. Unfortunately many families are dysfunctional to a certain extend and many others do define their values along the lines of material success. That still is the “main stream” – if there is such a thing. I am not overly concerned, and Liv also did absolutely take it lightheartedly that she did not get most of the things on her list (although she did get her ice-skates as I am all for sports and like to skate myself… although… I know, I know…). The big one turned out great. For this years school nativity play she made her herdsman (or girl) costume herself – from an old sheep wool cover she got from her grandma. She deliberately went onto stage uncombed, stood there, proudly wearing her selfmade costume, a hemp rope slung around her, and that Eurasian girl looked like she was directly beamed from the year 0 into the first century. Her “costume” was as close as it gets to real first century peasant wear, and the applause confirmed her. She already understood the difference between having and doing. Between compliments for something you bought and praise for something you did yourself. And I had noticed that some of the other kids also got the point. On another level – I know a few folks who are really, really well off but live very simple lives in ordinary small homes in ordinary communities. Not all is lost. I also see it as positive that many kids are not really that much interested in TV – at least those that I know. Some are a bit heavy into computer games (which can be good or bad – depending on what it is and how much), but many really are busy with sports, art, music, handcrafts, the outdoors and, can you believe it: READING! Sophie’s no 1. birthday wish was Harry Potter volume 2. Granted! 🙂

  2. Thanks for this Jeremy. The things I remember most from childhood (say up to the age of 12 or 13) are mostly linked to outside spaces – football and cricket and marbles on the road outside our house (slow road, not a lot of traffic – but what vehicles there were tended to “give way” to the children playing); walking by the river and up in the hills; birds’ nesting – I know, very bad form today;and cooking, more likely burning, sausages and beans on a fire by the river. Or in my brother’s case setting fire to Kinsley Wood, just behind Knighton. I know it was in some ways easier then, particularly with less traffic, few distractions like TV, computer games etc. and less fear of paedophiles – the word didn’t exist to my knowledge in the 1950s.
    Today outside activities for children can still be led by parents, as you and Louise do with Zach, but there is also a wide range of organisations that do things for kids, such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Natural England and so on. Sadly, I would guess that most parents who encourage their children to take up these opportunities are the same ones who take them out on nature rambles and walks themselves anyway.
    I’m looking forward to taking Zach on his first walk in the Shropshire Hills to look for red kites, buzzards and peregrines – or just to throw sticks in a stream and stamp in puddles!!

    1. And I’m looking forward to you taking him – perhaps I’ll have a nap while you do. My own memories of childhood are similar, in that they are outside, involving made-up games and adventures. Fire was often involved, especially at boarding school… That’s hard to imagine for Zach, and part of that is just where we are. It’s certainly easier in smaller towns, more rural areas, even the suburbs.
      I was encouraged to talk to one of the carers at the nursery though. They’d just had a training day where they were told to go and play outside, as adults, and none of them really knew what to do. The trainers encouraged them to climb trees, and make bows and arrows out of sticks. They had got quite into it apparently, and were planning to introduce much more outside play at the nursery.

  3. Reblogged this on Freak Of Nature and commented:
    I am grateful that I spent much of my childhood playing in the countryside but I know not all children get the opportunity to do that. Some very good points made in this post, let’s hope more parents can encourage sustainable childhoods too!

  4. Dear Jeremy,

    As a mother, grandmother and great grandmother I believe that the hardest thing to now teach children is the value of work. In my youth children each had essential work to do, like cutting kindling for firewood, collecting eggs and feeding poultry, growing vegetables. Nowadays such work is available only if parents choose an alternative lifestyle. Even then, a child will quickly realize that this is a choice the parents have made.

    If the child is asked to wash a car, sweep a floor or pack the dishwasher they are likely to see themselves as only doing something for their parents.

    My parents came from large families, I was the eldest of six children, but after my fourth child was born her older sister, aged about 10years, I asked her to look after the younger ones. She replied, You had these children because you wanted them. You look after them! She was comparing herself with other families who only had two children.

    I read all your messages.

    Fay Helwig



    1. Fay – you are raising a few really important points – especially the “choice” and “work” issues. It is true that there was a major shift over the last generation – even in the country here in Germany. As a boy it was still normal for me to help in the field, feed the animals, carry coal to the boiler, work in the garden, sweep the grounds. All the farm kids had to do their chores. Nowadays even the farm children are pampered – everything is mechanized and few farms even have their own vegetable garden. Another observation of mine is a disrespect for the value of things. When it comes to things we in the industrialized countries are ridiculous rich – I’d say we SUFFER from abundance. I still remember that I usually had two pencils and I used them until they were so small that I could hardly hold them. I recently counted – my daughters have nearly 400 pencils, color pencils and felt-tips. And new supply keep rolling in with every visitor. Even my oldest (8) to date did not learn to put the cap back on a felt-tip. When it’s dry, there is always another one. And that pretty much sets the tone for everything. Two much of absolutely everything, and not because we are in any way rich (our only car is held together by tape and we cannot afford to pay necessary dental “maintenance”). One reason is that all these toys and plastic things are so damn cheap. Also we developed a culture of keeping up. A culture of having. A culture of constantly demanding instant satisfaction. Unfortunately the disrespect for the value of things is then also applied to expensive and important – and more expensive – things. Clothing. Papa’s Computer. Expensive tools. Furniture. And also money. And I sense something else: the little ones constantly are encouraged to play. Even in school – everything has to happen in a “playful” way. The kids constantly have to be “motivated”. I think they also have to learn that getting something done – and getting something – requires an effort. That it is not always just fun. Old fashioned words come to mind. Self-discipline, for example. And respect. My oldest daughter was not even in school when I once asked her to do something for me. She said no. I asked her again. She said no. I told her to do it, otherwise… “Otherwise WHAT?” she countered me. “You are not going to HIT me anyway!”. Which is true. I felt powerless for a moment.

      Having said that: not all is bad and I am very proud of my 3 young ladies in many ways. Also at times I feel just like some old poop singing to the eons old symphony that complains about the young generation…

  5. Sudden thought… perhaps a sustainable economy is something quite similar to a sustainable childhood. An economy that is healthy and given freedom (within – Keynesian – limits) and guided towards a more relaxed and wise mature form. Like wiser and calmer men smiling about the follies and aggressions of their youth time, when perhaps they wanted to be superstars, millionaires and princess of the universe. And maybe – just maybe – this is what will happen in any case. One way or another.

  6. I find controlling screen time a major issue. I have a very strict policy, knowing that I don’t control what other people let my child do.
    Sometimes the problem with my child is that he doesn’t have anyone to play with : they are all tucked indoors playing to wii, watching youtube and TV. I know quite a few children who never play to anything except PSP and stuff. It’s quite different from my own childhood in the 70s and early 80s.
    Boredom is a part of the education I give. We don’t need to fill it in with activities and so on. I let my son get stiff bored. He complains. Then finds something to do (mostly construction plays, sometimes dancing, sometimes reading etc).

    It is true that what we lived as children becomes the baseline. But it is also difficult to live differently than other people. Not having a wii or a PSP or a TV in his room or a constant access to the computer is seen my many as if I am “depriving” my son of important stuff. I think they are depriving their children of important experiences, such as a hands-on experience of nature. Still, I get to feel I am walking against the main stream.

    1. @Fracture de Nuit: Boredom… oh how much a abhor that word… somehow suddenly had to think of the 80s Alice song “Summer on a solitary beach.” TV in the kids rooms… only over my dead body… (I am radical there!). For me “boredom” is the emotion that overcomes people when we are forced to confront – or contemplate – ourselves – and can’t stand it. Can’t stand the silence. Doing, doing, doing – manic doing instead of “magic of the moment.” There is no magic in WII, and less even in Cartoons. Constant diversions that stop independent thinking. They are not all bad either, there is a creative component, some positive aspects etc., the children indeed have to learn to cope with themselves – and that there really is no such thing as boredom for a creature with a brain as big as ours. Boredom itself is an illusion. A lack of training, indeed. I for myself cannot remember that I have ever felt bored for a single moment. When we are on vacation, there usually is no “media input”. No TV. No Nintendo. Lots of outdoors, nature. And suddenly manic little Miss “I am bored” cartoon girl can sit there, calmly, in quietude, watching the waves… :

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