Stargazing: Let’s Prioritize Environmental Literacy | Editorial

The complexity and beauty of the natural world could be lost on our kids if we don’t ensure the time and opportunity to ­appreciate it, play in it, and to be awestruck by it.

Winter is wonderful for stargazing. I like to take advantage of the long, dark hours to build in an evening walk with my kids to take in the night sky. Sometimes we wander through the neighborhood to find the darkest view in order to observe celestial activity. It reminds me of time I spent as a child learning the constellations and watching for satellites. Those hours anchored me firmly on this planet and instilled a sense of awe that continues to drive my respect and concern for Mother Earth. My environmental literacy was homegrown, experiential, and supported by knowledgeable parents who shared their enthusiasm and insight.

The great thing about learning about our ecosystem is that every moment in every place can be a teachable one. The Center for Ecoliteracy and the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation, among other organizations, offer tools to enhance environmental literacy.

But when it comes to experiencing the night sky, only some people are lucky enough to be near an area that is actually dark. All too many of us are surrounded by light pollution, from streetlamps to cars and industry—too much light obscures the stars. If you tune into this problem, you’ll see light everywhere, and wish for it to be directed only where intended. That, too, is something to learn about and act on. The International Dark-Sky Association created its Dark Sky Places Program to provide pathways for communities to protect against the negative effects of light pollution.

Ecoliteracy is more important than ever, but it needs to be increasingly intentional. If you haven’t yet read Jean M. Twenge’s recent Atlantic article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”, please do. Her titular question is a provocative one, and her answer is far from a simple yes or no. Instead, it’s a complex and fascinating exploration of how the members of a generation she dubs “iGen” (those born between 1995 and 2012) are increasingly living online and less-so off. This generation is growing up in a world shaped by technology and social media, but if they aren’t using those tools to create or capture memories of adventures in the real world, it spells trouble. One teen Twenge interviewed describes spending most of her summer “hanging out alone in her room with her phone.”

Twenge raises the social and psychological implications of such isolation. I also keep thinking about the impact of such a removal from the natural world. Forget about summer camp, hiking, or camping—what about just being outdoors, playing ball in a park, watching a thunderstorm brew, or running through it to get somewhere you want to go? What do you miss out on learning when you don’t really venture outside?

I think our approach to environmental literacy needs a reboot. First, we have too many children who don’t have access to nature or even safe outdoor spaces, or caregivers who simply don’t have the leisure to guide them in environmental explorations. Add those who may have access but aren’t allowed (or don’t have time) to go outside and explore it. The digital world and related tools should be part of the solution, not a consolation prize. How do we ensure that all children know how the world works, that they are getting solid information about our changing planet? How, even, do we spark their inner environmentalist?

It may not be easy, but it is important that it be done with eye toward wonderment. The complexity and beauty of the natural world could be lost on our kids if we don’t ensure the time and opportunity to ­appreciate it, play in it, and to be awestruck by it. When awe inspires a question about how something works, the journey to the answer becomes everything.

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Rebecca T. Miller Editor-in-Chief rmiller@mediasourceinc.com

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