Earth Day at 40: Where do Kids fit in?

Celebrating success is a good thing and the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day proved a big cause for celebration. Earth Day at 40: Valuing Wisconsin’s Environmental Traditions, Past, Present and Future, sponsored by the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, honored Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin native and the founder of Earth Day, and the many Wisconsin citizens who played a part in making Earth Day a success. It was fascinating to learn about the history of earth day and great to see old friends and classmates from my grad school days at UW-Madison.

But where do kids fit into this event? Since this was more of a historical and policy focused event, I had to look and listen to find the connections. There were a few covert statements made about kids, but no seminars explicitly about kids .

None-the-less, I heard many inspiring stories at the conference.

John Francis gave a talk about the 17 years that he chose not to speak and the 22 years he chose not to use motorized transportation in protest of an oil spill in San Francisco. He’s developing a K-12 curriculum called Planetlines for kids. You can read more about him at

I also heard from Tia Nelson, Gaylord Nelson’s daughter. She’s an environmental activist and said she was going to a teach-in at the Governor’s Mansion with 4th Graders for Earth Day. She mentioned that her dad was passionate about education and helped pass the Environmental Education Act that ensured national leadership for K-12 environmental education efforts.

I saw a former professor, Bud Jordahl, a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame ( He was influential in that first Earth Day and worked closely with Gaylord Nelson in the 1960s. His accomplishments are many and you can read about them at I’m grateful that he completely supports getting kids outside.

I learned that the first “E-day” in Madison in 1970 was organized in part by former Mayor Paul Soglin and many other young people (Soglin was just 26). It’s important to remember what a few dedicated young people can do.

To encourage more diversity in the environmental movement — I saw just two African-American and a handful of other minorities at the conference — The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies has just launched a community scholars program to encourage under represented students to pursue environmental careers. I look forward to seeing the fruits of that labor in years to come.

So, for  conference with little talk about kids, I still came away inspired and ready to do more work.

Hopefully, some of my students will become environmentalists or at the very least conscientious citizens and park users. My job is to get kids outside so that they know the places that are worth preserving.  That’s the message of Earth Day… to care for the planet and protect it. That starts at home with local parks and natural areas. While all my students know about Earth Day, it’s another thing to get them connected to the earth in meaningful ways. My job is to help them make those connections by taking them to beautiful places. Hopefully, they’ll fall in love with these places and keep coming back.

It’s that simple. People protect what they love.

What are you doing this Earth Day to encourage kids to love the planet?  Write and let me know.

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