How to Inspire A Love of Nature
By Julie Packard
Executive Director, Monterey Bay Aquarium
There’s little doubt that the natural world needs our care and attention more than ever before. The impact of a growing human population is transforming our planet. We’re converting wetlands into farmland, clear-cutting forests or turning them into tree farms, and leveling mountains to mine for coal and metals. The demands of our industrial society are having devastating effects on wildlife and wild places.
What does this have to do with family travel? Surprisingly, quite a lot.
The experiences we share with our children can fundamentally shape their interests and perspectives on the world. So, how do we instill a love of nature in our children now that they will carry forward as adults? What experiences can we offer them as we travel, or just explore our own communities, that will foster a lifelong love of the natural world?
The answer is quite simple: Spend time together in nature.
My own interest in the environment grew out of experiences I shared with my father when I was growing up. He had always been interested in natural history, everything from hunting to wildflowers to seeing how the grass grew for the cattle on his ranch. As a family, we spent a lot of time in the Mount Hamilton range, letting our curiosity have free rein. At home, even though my father was very busy running Hewlett-Packard, he always made time for us to grow a vegetable garden together.
These aren’t dramatic experiences. But they were fundamental to what we did as a family. Just spending time on activities like these sent a message: This is important.
BAY AREA HABITATS
Today, there are so many opportunities for families to connect with nature, especially in the Bay Area. We’re blessed to have ready access to an incredible range of habitats – everything from beaches and redwood forests, to the oak woodlands of the Coast Range, to Central Valley wetlands and alpine meadows nearby in the Sierra.
There are parks and interpretive centers to explore with your children. At most of them you’ll find volunteer docents and staff rangers, each one eager to share stories or lead you on a hike or a nature walk.
Commercial outfitters will put you in a kayak so you can explore San Francisco Bay or Monterey Bay. They’ll take you on a guided whalewatching excursion, or a bicycle tour through spring meadows. When you connect with groups like Audubon, or your regional park district, you can join in a day hike or a camping trip that suits the ages and stamina of your children.
And you can visit places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California Academy of Sciences, or any of the excellent zoos in the Bay Area to give your children a first encounter with wildlife they won’t easily meet on their own.
You can find calendars of events online or in newspapers and magazines, listing the best time of year to bring your children to places where monarch butterflies overwinter along the coast, where elephant seals gather to mate and breed, when hillsides are painted with wildflowers, when hawks and eagles migrate south, and vast flocks of waterbirds congregate in wetland refuges.
You can make your outings even more meaningful through organizations like the California Native Plant Society, which offer not only outings but also opportunities to make a difference through projects that remove invasive plants and restore native habitat. These are great ways to spend time together as a family.
TEACH AT HOME
You can make a difference without even leaving home. Work with your children in the garden to incorporate native plants into the landscape. Place bird feeders where your family can watch to see who visits. Take it to the next step by participating in one of Audubon’s backyard bird counts. Plant a vegetable garden with them (organically of course!). You’ll grow more than fruits and vegetables. You’ll nurture an appreciation of the soil, and the living things that sustain it.
If we want to pass on a planet as bountiful as the one we inherited, we must become better stewards of wildlands and wildlife. It’s a personal responsibility that grows out of experiences with nature, and an emotional connection with the things we find there. It’s at the core of why places like Monterey Bay Aquarium exist. We can offer kids their first, inspirational connections with wildlife. We can build on the love people feel for the wild creatures they encounter, engaging them with information about the plants and animals, the threats they face, and the steps we can take – individually and collectively – to assure their survival for generations to come.
My own interest, nurtured when I was a child, drew me to study marine biology and ultimately to play a role in creating the aquarium. Today, an entire generation has grown up with the aquarium. Children who first visited in strollers are graduating from college. Inspired by what they saw, some will become tomorrow’s scientists and conservation leaders.
The possibilities are exciting; each child has the potential. All each one needs is your encouragement and guidance to open the door.
Julie Packard is the executive director of the world-renown Monterey Bay Aquarium. This year marks the twenty-first anniversary of the landmark as well as her twenty-first year as its leader. She wrote this essay exclusively for BAFT.
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