by Shannon Brescher Shea – A metal bridge arches over a gently flowing stream in Rockville, Maryland, winding its way between trees and rock-strewn banks. Looking at little closer, it’s clear the water is littered with soda cans, cigarette butts, and plastic bags. But a stream clean-up is underway, with several families picking up trash. Adults wade in the water, picking up garbage and holding the hands of little ones, while bigger kids snatch junk with trash pickers and deposit it in bags.
Stream clean-up events are a great way to get outside and give back to the environment for Earth Day. During stream clean-ups, local citizens get together and pick up garbage at a waterway. While cities and organizations often organize them, individuals can also take action themselves. Participating in a clean-up has a variety of benefits to families. Children can become more comfortable in a variety of outdoor environments that they may not have experienced before, including climbing on slippery rocks and wading in water.
Of course, clean-ups are great for the environment too. Rivers and streams provide places to play, wildlife with habitats, and in some cases, drinking water. According to conservation organization American Rivers, freshwater channels provide two-thirds of our nation’s drinking water supply. Litter puts all of these uses at risk. Animals often eat plastics, blocking their digestive systems. Cigarettes and other pollutants can decrease water quality. Clearing out the garbage can help limit the damage.
These events are a great way to start conversations with your kids about the local environment. While many environmental issues like climate change are impossible to see directly, garbage is concrete. Kids can quickly understand how a plastic straw they drop at the playground finds its way into the stream.
“It allows the family and the children to provide a sense of ownership over this stream and stewardship,” said Shannon Philbin, the environmental outreach specialist for the City of Rockville, who runs the city’s stream clean-ups. “When we have children growing up with a sense of ownership and responsibility for our natural areas… they become more conscious of the decisions they make that affect it.”
These activities can also help parents teach kids about sustainability more broadly. Looking at what is in the stream and considering how it got there can spark conversations about consumption, recycling, and the water cycle. Madeline Bule, national river clean-up manager for non-profit organization American Rivers, recommends that families talk with children ahead of time about where their water comes from and how that relates to the clean-up.
“Residents can have a huge influence just in our own backyards,” said Philbin. “Eventually, we all live upstream of someone else.”
Local action also builds a sense of community and offers a way to connect with neighbors. For older kids, clean-ups can also provide community service hours for school or honors societies.
- But, like any outdoor activity involving kids, a few tips are helpful before plunging in:
- Check the weather. A stream cleanup should be canceled if there’s a chance of thunderstorms. In addition, the water level can be too high if it’s rained heavily in the past few days. Check the radar to look at the weather upstream, as nearby storms can raise the water level.
- Wear sturdy, waterproof shoes. Rubber boots can be great, although sometimes awkward to walk in easily. Waterproof sandals can be a good option if temperatures are on the warm side.
- Dress for the weather, preferably in long pants with layers on top. Stream clean-ups are often in the spring or fall, when temperatures and forecasts can change quickly.
- Be prepared to get wet; bring extra socks. Even if you’re wearing high boots, one misstep into water that’s relatively deep can fill your boots up with water. (This happened to me several times on our clean-up.) Getting wet can also make you feel much colder than the temperature would otherwise.
- Bring gloves. Garbage in streams can be potentially dangerous. If participating in a clean-up organized by a local municipality or organization, they are likely to provide these, but it’s not a bad idea to bring your own, just in case. Even if the organization does provide gloves, they often won’t have ones in children’s sizes.
- Pack gear specific to your family. Water, snacks, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer are always useful. Depending on if you are attending an organized event or not, you may want to bring a first aid kit and a map of the stream you are cleaning.
- Watch small children closely. Stream and river banks can be steep and children fall in easily. In addition, some garbage such as broken glass or needles can be dangerous. Ensure children only pick up “safe” garbage like plastic bottles. Tell kids to ask before they pick up anything questionable.
- If kids are too small or the water is too deep, have them point out garbage for you to pick up. It’s often easier to see certain things from the banks than it is down in the stream.
- Only fill up trash bags half-way, or less if a kid is holding it. You don’t want to be stuck with a bag that’s too heavy as you climb out of the stream.
- Allow kids to go at their own pace.
To find a stream clean-up near you, search the American Rivers National River Cleanup website. Look at your city or county’s website as well – they may organize events that they don’t list on the American Rivers site. Many cities also host “Adopt a Stream” programs, where a small group can take responsibility for cleaning up a waterway two or three times a year.
“We want to get across no matter how old you are, you can take action in your local community and make a difference cleaning up the stream in your backyard,” said Bule.
Shannon Brescher Shea is a mom who loves getting out in nature with her three and five-year-old children. She blogs about teaching kids to be kind and environmentally- sustainable on her blog We’ll Eat You Up, We Love You So as well as on Facebook and Twitter.