How I Forced My 5 Year Old To Become an Environmentalist, or, an Interview with Philippe Cousteau

© Meaghan O'Neill. My son, sitting on the rocks near his grandparents' homes.

I live by the sea. It's nice here. And I'd like it to stay that way. Which is just one of many reasons why I try to teach my young son how to protect the place where we live, and why we spend a lot of time exploring the natural world around us.

I want him to not just love this place like I do, but also to feel responsible for it -- to understand that his actions have a bearing on what it will be like when he's my age, that he has a duty to protect it, and what's more, to give him the tools (and the chutzpah) to do it. And so we pick up trash from the beach. We talk about why wasting water is harmful, why the storm drains say "No dumping," and how animals in the sea might mistake plastic bags for food. We tend a garden. We compost. We reduce, reuse, and recycle. And when I talk to him about our home, I refer to it as "your island," hoping that this custodial idea will become ingrained in how he views it.

I'm under no delusion that it's enough. We drive too much, have way too many toys, and occasionally order out, just to name a few of our many irresponsible indulgences. We're a modern-day family faced with that most common of dilemmas -- we're short on time and work long days. And despite how much we do care about the environment and work on modifying our behavior, there's much we are doing that is contributing to its demise.

And yet, we remain hopeful that the next generation will find ways to do much more than mine does. We hope that they will not only not repeat but also find ways to erase our errors. And, so, we implant these environmental morals in our youth, in the hopes that the laws they make and the actions they take will be far superior to our own. At least, I do.

A few weeks ago, I attended the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, with my family in tow. Many of the presenters -- from Lance Hosey to Erin Schrode -- spoke about how educating the upcoming generation about environmental issues is essential to finding a balance between natural and technical systems and has everything to do with whether the future of this planet looks more or less like it does now or more or less like the zombie apocalypse.

Serendipitously, I also ran into Philippe Cousteau -- grandson of Jacques and founder of Earth Echo International, a non-profit dedicated to empowering youth on water issues -- who mentioned he had just written a book for children. Naturally the TreeHugger team knew just what to do: Set up an interview with a five year old. Luckily, I had one at my disposal.

© Free Spirit Publishing

I should mention that my son has none of the stage presence of some of his friends -- natural born stars who have performed in actual plays that cost money to attend or who have stumped behind the podium and on TV for their Senate-seat-seeking dads. Unfortunately, I'm no stage mom. (Perhaps I should up my game.)

Still, I put my little one on the spot, knowing that he'd be nervous and shy, because I wondered what a five year old would ask the grandson of the world's most famous ocean explorer-slash-conservationist (my son came up with the questions himself), and hoping I'd impress upon him that he's important enough to care, to speak to the movers and shakers, and perhaps, one day, to even become one himself. Here's how it went down:

The interview above might make an impression on only one boy, but Cousteau's book, Make a Splash!, co-written with Cathryn Berger Kaye, has the potential to make a much bigger ripple. A kids' guide to helping oceans, rivers, and wetlands, the book makes it easy for elementary school children to learn about Earth's water crisis in terms they can understand, and empowers them to take action by going outside, exploring, and understanding the cycle of life through the watersheds right in their own towns and cities. Tips in the book include encouraging kids to embark on research projects, be "political" by reminding their parents about water issues, create an action plan for their own projects, and keep a log of their activities. Plus it includes inspiring stories about other kids.

I generally don't believe in shielding children from harsh truths, but rather in explaining things in terms they can understand. Make a Splash! tackles issues like oil spills, climate change, and dying coral reefs with age-appropriate explanations, being neither too cute nor too dire. Parents and educators alike will find this book a useful tool for introducing water issues to the younger set.

My son had also heard that his new friend Philippe had developed a "video game," and wanted to know how he came up with the idea. In fact, Cousteau was on hand at SXSW Eco to host two sessions of the University of Virginia Bay Game, a large-scale simulation of a major watershed where players take on the roles of stakeholders. However, kids looking for a digital companion to Make a Splash! can download Rescue Reef (we did), an iPhone and iPad app that allows players to help animated endangered sea animals.

SGN/Screen capture

To be honest, I found it a little bit unclear to determine just what the ultimate goals of the game are. However, I feel I should also make clear that I am an old lady severely above the target age group for the game and who considers my iPhone a utility and rarely uses it for entertainment (with a grand and sweeping exception for Instagram). Parents will find it a pleasant enough pastime for small kids. Beware, however, that the game does allow players to up their scores with cash money; do as I do and set your phone to require a password for downloads from the app store, or be prepared for the possibility of an accidental purchase. Should you, however, find yourself to be the proud owner of $60 worth of new "shells," take solace in the fact that your money will be supporting Earth Echo. In fact, that might feel like a fine place for it to go, should you, like me, also be counting on your little ones to become budding environmentalists.

Tags: Activism | Book Reviews | Books | Games | Kids | Oceans | video | Water Conservation | Water Crisis