Teaching kids stewardship… with a grabber?

Todays post is brought to you by my friend Amber. We got into a discussion one day about kids volunteering and learning to taking ownership of their favorite natural places. The result was this awesome essay about her experience taking her kids to volunteer in Yosemite. I love it.

Has anyone else incorporated outdoor volunteerism into their outdoor outings? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

I grew up in a house where certain things were just, understood. Among such things was the understanding that if we didn’t take care of our things, we would eventually be out of things to take care of.  Although there was a certain resentment that accompanied this understanding, I knew when I had kids of my own that I wanted them to have the same sense of responsibility, or stewardship, over the things that were theirs.

I had the grand expectation that it would be fairly easy to help my child develop this sense of stewardship in every aspect of life, from toys, to friendships, to the natural world around them.

My child would not have the sense of entitlement that is so prevalent in so many kids today.

My child would always be noble, kind, and responsible.

I soon realized, however, that there are many forces working against me, primary among these being myself (as I am not always noble, kind, responsible). But there is one area where I have seen progress. I have seen them gain some sense of stewardship for the beauties of the natural world that we all share.

One of the challenges I have had in helping them to gain this sense of stewardship is due to the well-known fact that each child is different.  I have not been able to use the same methods for each of my children.

My oldest son is motivated. Period.  He has lists, projects, notebooks full of “inventions”.  One thing that motivates him very much, and always has is…money.  Offer him a quarter and he’ll clear our whole back yard of dog poo (I’m not looking forward to the time when he realizes that he’s way under-priced). So with him, we started telling him that we would give him a nickel for every piece of trash that he picked up from our campsite, beach site, hike, climbing area, etc. The boy would look for trash incessantly and be thrilled when he would cash it in and carry away his load of change (I think that the most that we’ve ever had to pay him is $1.20). He is also cursed to live by the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”. He’s a bit of a collector so if he happens to find something worth keeping, he will quietly sneak it into his pocket, but not until after he has been properly paid for it.

I have always felt a little guilty that we were basically bribing him to leave a place better than he found it. But recently I have noticed him picking up trash that he sees without any prompting or expectation of monetary reward.

Enter boy #2.  This boy is, less motivated.  He’s more of a free-spirited, less focused on the particulars kind of guy.  He reminds me of a butterfly, flitting from here to there, and it thrills him when I tell him so. So when the “cash-for-trash” method found its match in him, I was at a bit of a loss.  He would wander around and pick up a piece here and there, then become distracted by some wonder or another, drop the pieces he had managed to collect, and come back to camp void of trash but with hands loaded with various awesome sticks and rocks.

I love the way he has the ability to lose himself in the wonder of the world around him, but I also felt that it was important for him to recognize that there are sometimes abuses of nature and that he can be part of a solution.

While trying to figure out a solution for him, we went to Yosemite to participate in the annual “Facelift” (organized by the Yosemite Climbing Association).

The Yosemite Facelift is an event where volunteers spend a weekend in September cleaning up the park. The park receives 3.7 million visitors a year, the largest concentration of them during the summer months. So it manages to collect quite a bit of garbage. The average amount of trash collected during the facelift events has steadily decreased during the 8 years since it started (the park is getting cleaner and cleaner every year). For the first few years, volunteers collected around 30,000 pounds of small trash. Last year’s resulted in about 4,300 pounds (not including asphalt–over 400,000 pounds, which was mostly recycled!).  It was a really great experience to be a part of, an experience our family plans to make an annual tradition until there is no more trash to collect.

It was during this weekend that I finally found a way to motivate my little butterfly. His motivation came in the form of a slender, lightweight tool beloved by many around the world for it’s functionality…the grabber.

As soon as he laid his eyes on it and was able to manipulate it’s rubber grips he was on a roll. He carried it everywhere for 2 days, on bike rides, hikes, climbs. He could be seen picking up trash from dawn until dusk, only occasionally using it as any boy should for an impromptu sword fight or light saber battle.

Now, although we don’t routinely carry his grabber with us on every outing, I’ve found that for him, if we make trash cleaning a game or associate it with an adventure, he’s every bit as motivated as his fiscally-minded brother.

Good stewardship involves many aspects, leaving a place cleaner than you found it being only one. I have found that, as children feel a sense of connection and ownership (different than entitlement) to a place, they want to take care of it. It’s like a favorite toy, as they play with it, sleep with it, eat with it, live with it, it becomes something more than a toy, it becomes a friend.

As our children are exposed to and experience the beautiful world around them, it becomes a part of them in a very real way. Yosemite isn’t just a national park, it’s our park. The beach we frequent at Lake Tahoe isn’t just a beach it’s our beach (just ask the poor people who were not informed of this privatization of our plot of sand-with accompanying rocks for jumping. Before they know it they will be quickly surrounded by a rambunctious brood of fort building, rock hopping, water splashing, crawdad catching kids). It’s our crag, our trail, our river, our lake. We take care of the things that are ours, or we will eventually be out of things to take care of.

So although my kids are not yet master stewards, I can’t help but hope that their sense of stewardship for their natural world will spill over into other aspects of their lives.

As for my little daughter, time will only tell what will motivate her to be a steward of her awe-inspiring world.

9 Comments so far

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  1. Great article Amber! I love the idea of helping out with trash pick up in a place like Yosemite… turning a giant chore into a yearly adventure is really cool!

  2. Grandma B

    I knew the moment i started to read this article that you wrote it. I’m so proud that you are teaching your children to take care of gods beautiful gift to us all.

  3. Sherri

    Love the enthusiasum of the kids and the thoughtfulness of people to cleanup a great national park

    • Sherri – I agree, I need to follow in Ambers foot steps and get my own kids out there!

  4. When my oldest son, who is now twelve, was in kindergarten, he was given a class project on rivers. We did a river clean up at a nearby park. During the clean up we were picking up plastic bags that had been caught in low tree limbs during a time of high water. Inside one of the bags was a dead fish, who we assumed had swam inside the bag, and was trapped. It so influenced my son that he has made it a mission ever since to clean up any trash he finds. We often volunteer at local and day trip clean up efforts. Your butterfly reminds me of mine, my daughter. She attends the clean ups only to socialize, play in the mud and the only time you will find her cleaning is when someone breaks out a camera. Keep at it, parenting is all about delayed gratification!

    • Michelle – I guess some good can come from a dead fish in a bag. That’s actually a pretty good lesson for a kid. Thanks for sharing!

  5. […] it was that I was showing my kids about what I valued. Exercise? Computer? Work? Outdoors? Phone? Service? Them? Cooking? Health? Art? TV? Reading? Funny how what you think you value isn’t always […]

  6. Katie

    Hey! That’s BP!

    • Katie –

      Thats right. Brian mentioned he knew you! Small world…


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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