Let Generation Z Own Their Own Nature

Charmin Dahl

By Charmin Dahl

My 13-year-old walked into our living room displaying the universal teen scowl. “If I hear ‘Your Generation’ one more time… ‘Your generation has to save the planet!’ ‘Your generation has to fix the world!’ It’s too much!” 

Generation Z (also called Gen Z or Zoomers) range from age 7 to 25, and number about 68 million in the U.S. In general, Zoomers value environmental stewardship, civil rights, empathy, and creative expression. 

So why doesn’t my teen relish solving the heavy problems of the world? Naturally, she’s consumed by her own development. In addition, Generation Z is pressured by the realities of the climate crisis and systemic inequality. They experience higher levels of stress and depression than previous generations. 

The mental and physical benefits of time spent in nature are well-documented, so let’s get outside! Beyond that, we can take pressure off Gen Z by giving them agency over their relationship with the natural world. Let Zoomers connect with nature on their own terms.

As a parent and conservation educator, I am working to integrate these tips.

1. Make nature accessible. 

All children deserve to be outside. We must help remove barriers such as fear for safety, localized pollution, and lack of resources needed to visit or create natural areas.

In addition, we need to adjust our own definitions of nature. By acknowledging that nature is all around us, we can encourage stewardship by creating pride of place. It’s important that people know the nature in their neighborhood has value.

2. Time spent outside should be self-directed. 

Have you heard phrases like “free play” or “unstructured play”? These words instruct adults to let children explore the outdoors without assigned tasks. Kids may use this time to explore, build forts, and get dirty. If they prefer to draw or write — that’s OK. Kids’ time in nature should be their time. Giving children autonomy over their experiences outdoors encourages their connection to nature.

3. Bringing tech outside is OK.

Ask yourself, would Greta Thunberg be as successful if she weren’t allowed to use social media?

Gen Z is the most tech-savvy generation yet. Yet, as parents, we’re often saying, “get off your screen.” Let’s reimagine their use of technology instead of rejecting it. More than ever, technology and conservation go hand-in-hand. Zoomers are able to create and participate in online campaigns, citizen science projects and more.

For example, while I go bird-watching, my daughter takes pictures with her smartphone. We spend time in nature together, but in ways that nurture our individual souls.

4. Pro-environmental projects should also be self-directed.

Projects that encourage children to become environmental stewards (such as building a pollinator garden or starting a recycling/composting program) should be self-directed. Children should lead the project at all levels while adults serve as mentors. When children create their own stewardship projects, they feel ownership of the nature around them and gain confidence in their abilities.

5. Celebrate small successes. “Think global, act local.”

Asking one generation to fix generations-old problems is unrealistic. Instead of rising to these global challenges, Gen Z may collapse under their weight. Instead, let’s focus on small successes: That moment when nature sparks a child’s curiosity. The student-led event to save the bees. The day my daughter thought the Trash Bash was “sooo fun.” 

Small successes encourage additional effort. Sustained efforts that improve our surroundings can help solve larger problems. And instead of the overwhelming demand to “fix the world,” Zoomers gain confidence to “fix their world.” And we all benefit from that.

Charmin Dahl is an informal educator and conservation communications expert. She has conducted workshops for St. Louis metro students on promoting conservation through art and persuasive writing. Her conservation-themed work was featured in Golf the Galleries at The Sheldon. This essay was completed as a part of Charmin’s graduate work in biology for Project Dragonfly at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden.