Children love learning, and it's undeniable that great ideas and principles shared at a young age can impact the path of a child for a lifetime. A coloring book I had as a child about America's national parks instilled a desire to visit all of our country's parks - a goal still in process - and was the seed for a commitment to keeping wild things wild.
There's my anecdotal story, and there's the science. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine states, "Early childhood is a time when developmental changes are happening that can have profound and lasting consequences for a child's future. Studies have shown that much more is going on cognitively, socially, and emotionally in young children than previously known. Even in their earliest years, children are starting to learn about their world in sophisticated ways."
So my wish for learning-loving children - if I had a magic wand - would be to ensure there was more emphasis in school curriculum about the essential value of the natural world and biodiversity to engender a love and appreciation for the world's wildlife, and the role each species plays in keeping Earth in balance.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, between 1970 and 2014, 60 percent of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles were wiped out, a threat to civilization, experts say. Given that shocking statistic, and the implications of it, the role of biodiversity should be core curriculum material.
In addition to emphasizing the importance of our wild world in public school curriculum, wildlife organizations have a critical role in developing programs that reach youth. As a small example, the American Prairie Reserve, which is working to create the largest nature reserve in the contiguous United States, offers a downloadable coloring book for ages 12 and up. With designs created by artist Erica Freese, a long-time supporter of the nonprofit, the book brings the prairie to life with intricate drawings to color of bison, prairie dogs and more from the grasslands of Montana. While nonprofits can push out this type of material in a variety of ways to a young audience, teachers, parents and kids can actively seek out this sort of information too.
Books open imagination and worlds to young readers and, short of making the actual physical journey, reading is a way to travel to the wild spots, a way to see the animals and the great natural world and a way to plant the seeds of inspiration - what can I do to make the world a better place?
Panthera, a nonprofit committed to the conservation of the world's 40 wild cat species and their ecosystems, compiled a list of great children's books for wild cat-loving young readers. Among them: "A Boy and a Jaguar," "The World Belongs to Animals" and "One Day on our Blue Planet ... in the Savannah." Again, educators and parents need only to seek out these resources to engage their students and children in wildlife discussion.
Additionally, recently in print is "Cougar Crossing - How Hollywood's Celebrity Cougar Helped Build a Bridge for City Wildlife." Written by Southern Californian Meeg Pincus, this children's book is the true story of P-22, the mountain lion who survived crossing two of the busiest, multiple-lane U.S. highways. While P-22 escaped his birthplace, the Santa Monica Mountains, which are essentially cut off for cougars and other animals to migrate and find mates, he ended up on yet another "island," Griffith Park. The world-famous location, home to the Griffith Observatory, encompasses an area that's 17 times smaller than what the average cougar ranges.
P-22's plight shows a major failing in our approach to wildlife. We've worked to preserve areas - parks, reserves and preserves - but we've missed the importance of interconnectivity. Wildlife needs to be able to move. The story of this adventurous cougar has generated worldwide interest and has been a driver of the movement to build a wildlife bridge over the 101 Freeway in Southern California to facilitate wildlife movement.
What great grist for inspiring children - the future biologists, land use directors, city planners, conservationists, wildlife managers, environmental scientists and legislators - to think about how we can have a world that works for our wildlife and how interconnectivity needs to be considered.
"Children are our future" is an oft-repeated line that rings true. Let's do more to ensure that our children have the educational underpinnings to understanding how essential all wild things are for all of us and our one planet.
Maria Fotopoulos writes about the connection between overpopulation and biodiversity loss. Contact her on Facebook @BetheChangeforAnimals.