This article was published in Earlychildhood News.
Society is moving rapidly into a period where we collectively are looking at how our actions and choices impact others and our environment. Global warming, children's health problems and developmental disabilities are increasing at an alarming rate. Childhood obesity, cancer in children and asthma has reach epidemic proportions. The autism rate alone in the United States has risen from 1 in 20,000 in the 1980's to 1 in 150 children in 2008! Autism is more common that pediatric cancer, diabetes and AID combined.
While there is no doubt that many of these childhood maladies have a genetic component, only recently have we come to realize that possible contaminants in the environment can have a devastating effect on young children. Since the dawn of the century, the Western world has introduced over 70,000 chemicals into our environment in order to make our lives more convenient. We assume that all of these chemicals were safe when, in fact, many have been scientifically proven to cause developmental disabilities. Many of these chemicals stay in the body for a lifetime where they are stored in body fat and in the liver. Long term effects of these chemicals still are unknown.
Beginning in the womb, babies and children are more vulnerable to environmental toxins. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, drink more water and eat more than adults. Their neurological systems are still developing and often times they are playing on the floor where chemicals are often used. Young children are very orally stimulated, so everything goes into the mouth. These known behavior patterns put children at more risk to accidental exposure.
Now is the time for all of us to look at how the world and our daily environment are interconnected. Sustainability or green living means much more than being environmentally friendly and includes more than simply reducing, reusing and recycling. Sustainability requires a new awareness of how our individual and collective action can and will affect our children as well as the environment.
As role models who are constantly demonstrating value education for young children, early childhood educators can also help parents and the broader society understand how to make choices that best serve children and protect our environment. The results will be healthier children and more productive adults. This article will show you how to live consciously, buy wisely, and make a difference.
At the childcare center and in our homes, the American consumer spends, on an average, significantly more than the rest of the world for goods, heating, cooling and water usage. The energy used, whether it's from coal, petroleum or natural gas, causes carbon dioxide emissions. These emissions accumulate in the Earth's atmosphere and trap the heat of the sun to cause global warming. There are some simple steps that you can take to cut down your center's energy emissions and cut yearly heating and cooling expenses.
Before moving onto how to buy wisely, let's look at ways early childhood staff can help eliminate waste and reduce paper usage.
You only have to look at the variety of early childhood furniture and equipment vendors to know that early childhood educators are mass consumers of goods. Many items in the early childhood market gave rise only when we as consumers demanded them. When I started in early childhood education in 1978, there were only a few equipment vendors to choose from but as consumer demand has increased, so has the complexity and variety of things on the market.
At one time the market for so called green products was very small and the cost to the consumer was considerable higher. Given the current and ongoing rise in consumer demand for healthier choices, the green options have become cheaper. Target, Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam's Club all now carry organic foods, some organic toys and paper products made from recycled content. Office Depot has an entire line now of green office supplies. By shopping around and buying in bulk, costs for healthier and green options are now about the same for some products.
As a consumer, early childhood educators must learn new ways of doing business. Educate yourself about green products, know who provides certification and think for yourself. Just because someone sells a product does not mean that it is healthy or safe for young children.
We should all begin our sustainable buying practices for all products with the following questions for vendors and ourselves.
The United States is an economy built on the use of plastics. This is not true in the rest of the world where many toys, props and infant items are made of wood or washable cloth. The problem with plastics is that some of the softer plastics used in teething toys, play props, bibs and art aprons are PVC plastic. This plastic contains phthalates, chemicals that leech into our environment. Phthalates are linked to developmental disabilities, asthma and reproductive problems. Another plastic, polycarbonate, used in baby bottles, contain a chemical know as bisphenol A which behaves like estrogen in the body and has been shown to migrate from worn or heated bottles.
While you might not be able to eliminate all plastics from your classroom environment, stay away from the softer plastics and use the following guidelines:
Every item that you place in the classroom environment emits what are called volatile organic compounds, VOC's, whether we are talking about furniture, construction materials, cleaning products or toys. These emissions foul our indoor air quality and can have a devastating effect on young children's developing neurological systems. When buying classroom furniture, selecting construction or cleaning products follow these guidelines:
Nearly half of all the trees cut in North America are made into paper. To make paper wood is ground, pressed, dried and chlorine bleached. This process produces over 1,000 different chemicals including the carcinogen, dioxin. In 2005, the US generated 246 million tons of solid waste and nearly 35% of this was paper.
The availability of recycled paper and greener office supplies has grown in the United Stated to meet the growing demand. Look for paper that is processed chlorine free (PCF) and has a post consumer (PCW) content higher than 85%. There are other suggestions that you can use to cut down on paper purchasing and usage.
All of this information can be confusing and it's hard to figure out what to do. But, what you do as an individual, an early childhood practitioner and a community resident does matter.
"It's amazing what a small group of committed people can accomplish to change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has", Margaret Mead.
At one time we used asbestos as a building material and lead in many of our products including gas. Social education and social action has helped our nation to understand how these choices affect children and the environment. These actions led the way for us to ban these substances.
They say that the journey of a hundred miles starts with one step. Begin to educate staff and parents on the issues discussed in this article. Then, create your own network of people with whom you can discuss their social and ecological concerns. Everyone can do a variety of steps to reduce their impact on the planet. Encourage everyone to visit www.myfootprint.org and see for them selves what type of impact their lifestyle has on our planet.
Refer interested parties to the Turn the Tide program, www.turnthetide.org, that uses ten simple steps that anyone can take to lessen their impact on the environment. Participation is free and you will receive a log to track your actions and impact.
Get involved in affecting our nation's environmental policies. Vote for candidates that support:
The League of Conservation Voters publishes an annual scorecard on the environmental voting records of Congress. The Center for A New American Dream has a page that describes procurement policies of government agencies that have reduced their impact on the environment and saved money. Use your political knowledge to make decisions.
We have learned through this article how to live consciously, buy wisely and make a difference for children's health and the environment. In teaching children about environmental issues, emphasize the positive, be a good role model and enlist parent participation. Together, we can choose to make a difference!
Vicki L. Stoecklin is the Education and Child Development Director with White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, a Kansas City, Mo firm, which specializes in design and consultation for children's environments including children's museums, children's leisure and entertainment sites, schools, child care facilities and children's farms. Vicki has a Master's Degree in Education and thirty years of experience and is also adjunct faculty at National Louis University School of Education where she teaches graduate courses in children's environments. She can be reached by voice at +1.816.931-1040, Ext 102, Missouri relay (TTY) 800-735-2966 and by email. Additional information about the Institute on Creating Sustainable Environments for Young Children, articles and a free e-newsletter on Children's Environments and can be found at www.whitehutchinson.com/children.