How to grow an environmentalist

Environmentalists and naturalists are nurtured not born

How do we help children develop a love and deep appreciation for the earth and the world around them? It begins with curiosity and wonder.

All children are born with curiosity about the world. They are natural explorers of their environments. As adults, we can help that spark of curiosity flame into a sense of wonder. Wonder, in this context, is not just asking questions, but it’s marveling at the world around us; it’s being filled with a sense of awe.

The Big Ideas for Little Environmentalists series (Putnam Books; Board; On Sale 3/8/2022; ages 0-3) was conceived from the idea that it’s never too early to start discussions, even with the littlest children, about the world around us and how to get involved. The first four books in the series -- CONSERVATION WITH JANE GOODALL, RESTORATION WITH WANGARI MAATHAI, PRESERVATION WITH ALDO LEOPOLD, and ECOSYSTEMS WITH RACHEL CARSON -- each share the story of a famous naturalist or environmentalist to inspire curiosity and wonder.

When you examine the lives of these figures, you find a common thread. At a young age, they were filled with curiosity about their world, and that curiosity was modeled, shared, and nurtured by a significant adult in their life.

Wonder, passion, curiosity, are all contagious.

Rachel Carson’s mother took long walks with her, often stopping to identify the call of birds, to draw pictures and make up stories about what they encountered.

Photo credit - Diana Rebman

When Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife ecology, was encouraged by his mother to keep a journal of his thoughts and feelings on nature. He wrote at age 11, "I like the wren best of all birds. We had 13 nests of wrens in our yard last summer. We hatched 120 young wrens. I like wrens because they do more good than almost any other bird."

New ideas and innovations come from wonder and so does empathy. Curiosity takes a child beyond themselves to experience another’s point of view. To care about other people, animals, and the land, you must be curious about them. Asking questions and being curious helps children move from an egocentric view of the world to an empathetic view.

When Jane Goodall was very small her father gave her a toy chimpanzee, in honor of a baby chimpanzee born at the London Zoo. They wondered and learned about the chimp together. She read books about Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan.

Wangari Maathai's family decided to send her to school at a time and in a place when it was uncommon for girls to be educated. They encouraged her to be curious and learn as much as possible about the world.

As adults sometimes we can become so burdened by the dailiness of life that we forget to be curious and lose our sense of wonder.

Here are eight practical ways you can inspire curiosity and wonder in your child’s life and reignite it in your own.

Feed the curiosity beast: Start a wonder box and fill it with wonderful discoveries. Rocks, bird’s nests, seeds, drawings, and photos.

Play and explore together: in your own backyard or a city park. Shared discoveries bring the most joy.

Seek out and explore wild places: the wilderness or a vacant lot. How is it different than a planned environment? What do you notice?

Learn together: share your questions with your child and together search for answers. It’s good for children to know that we should all be lifelong learners and that there is always more to be curious about.

Ask big questions: then listen and comment on childrens’ answers. Talk about how what it means to be a caretaker of the earth. Brainstorm ways we can care for the land and animals and each other.

Build reflection into your day: At the end of the day or over a meal, talk about the most interesting thing you discovered today.

Model curiosity: Be interested in people, places, and ideas. Ask questions about other countries and cultures.

Share what you love: books, poetry, music, science experiments, art. What creates wonder?

The Big Ideas For Little Environmentalists books are a starting place for important conversations. They examine, in child friendly language, the big ideas that sparked renowned environmentalists to take action. The books’ open-ended questions and detailed illustrations are designed to ignite curiosity. Start the conversation early!

Maureen McQuerry is an award-winning children's author, poet, and teacher. Maureen McQuerry is the author of four novels, 2 board book series, and 2 nonfiction books. Her books have been selected for YALSA best fiction, ALA best book, Bank Street Best Books, and sold in 5 languages. Maureen taught for 20 years and was the McAuliffe fellow for WA state in 2000. Maureen lives on an island near Seattle with her husband, a hive full of bees and four chicken sisters. Find her at