MY TURN: 'SAVE THE ELEPHANTS: DON'T BUY IVORY SOA

I live in the Chicago suburbs, where the nearest wild area is the ice-cream place after a T-ball game. Still, exposing my kids to nature is high on my to-do list. We check under rocks for bugs, maintain a bird feeder, take lunch to the nearest forest preserve and go camping twice a year. I've been fortunate enough to be able to turn my love of nature into a career; I'm an educator at a zoo.

I recently read an article at work that sparked a change in the way I think about kids and nature. In "Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education," educator David Sobel tells the story of an 8-year-old who learned about elephant poaching in school. At home, the girl created a poster for display in her local grocery store with the slogan "Save the Elephants: Don't Buy Ivory Soap." She wanted to help but clearly she didn't understand the issues surrounding poaching.

I began to look around at the kinds of environmental messages reaching kids today. I found statistics about endangered animals and rain-forest destruction on kids' TV shows, in books and magazines, even on the backs of their animal-cracker and cereal boxes.

These include some seriously sad messages. One "Save the Earth" book lists this "amazing fact" for grade-school children: "Every day, 40,000 of the world's poorest children under age 5 die unnecessarily for lack of basic health care and medicine." An alphabet book about extinct animals tells preschoolers, "L is for Las Vegas frog... People built the city of Las Vegas and paved over all the freshwater springs where this frog used to live. Sadly, we say goodbye to the Las Vegas frog." The very last sentence of the book is, "Let's hope human beings never become extinct."

Night-night, Jimmy.

A friend showed me a painting of a whale her 3-year-old made at preschool. The teacher had written "endangered" on the page. How do you explain "endangered" to a preschooler? "Well, honey, when you grow up, there may not be any whales left"? Pretty heavy stuff.

One problem is that these concepts are just too abstract and complex for kids who still believe in the Tooth Fairy. They aren't developmentally ready to understand the issues or reasonable solutions. One second grader wrote to our zoo director, "... please don't let people build their houses in front of an animal's habitat. Because you could be building a hunter's house and they could kill the animals living there."

Cognitive disconnect isn't the only problem. Worse, perhaps, is the emotional toll environmental doom and gloom can have on kids. There have always been global problems--but only recently have kids been made to feel responsible for solving them. When I think back to my own childhood, I wonder how my friends and I would have reacted to cereal-box messages like find a cure for polio or stop the Vietnam war. I recently heard a psychologist on television say that the No. 1 stressor in life is feeling responsible for things we can't control.

I was interested in what does motivate people to care about the environment, and came across an article by psychologist Louise Chawla. She interviewed environmentally active citizens and found that they attributed their commitment to "many hours spent outdoors [as children]... and an adult who taught a respect for nature." This was the recipe of my own childhood--lazy summers spent exploring the creek with my dog, and a dad who understood how exciting it was to find a crawdad under an overturned rock.

So when should we start talking to kids about environmental problems? Sobel advises "no tragedies before fourth grade." By 10 or so, kids can help solve small problems--like how to get teammates to recycle their water bottles. By middle school, kids are ready to take on more complex issues like how to influence environmental policy.

Here's my confession: I haven't always seen the need to back off the bad news. I used finger puppets to teach kindergartners about rain-forest destruction, and I wasn't particularly concerned about how they slept at night. Why didn't I realize that what brought me to my career was the fun I had playing in the woods as a kid, not hearing alarming news about the environment?

My kids, ages 9 and 5, don't know the meaning of the word "endangered." But they can tell you what it feels like to hold a worm or lie in the grass under the stars. They also turn off the water when they brush their teeth and take leftovers to the compost pile. These are kid-appropriate conservation actions, done not out of fear but out of habit. It's my kids' love of nature and earth-friendly practices--not their understanding of global demands on resources--that reassures me they will grow to be good caretakers of the natural world.