I am a freak about shutting off the water when it’s running. I rush through my shower. I turn off the tap as I soap my hands. I shut it off when I’m washing the dishes, and I might even shut it off when you’re washing the dishes, which I understand is probably meddlesome and irritating. The thing is, it pains me when the water is coming out of the tap while it’s not being used, just like it pains me to walk out of a room without turning the lights off, or to throw recycling in the garbage.

I know that where we live there isn’t a water shortage, and that most recycling probably gets shipped to China and then burned or thrown in the ocean anyway, and that my obsession with driving in such a way that I imagine I’m “maximizing” my gas (gaining speed on downhills and then coasting, for example) will in my whole lifetime not be equal to the gas used by one military vehicle in one hour. 

The logical portion of my mind recognizes that corporations and other massive entities want me to believe environmental change is “up to me,” when the truth is that capitalism and the military industrial complex outweigh the effect we can have as individuals to such an extent that it seems hopeless. But the (admittedly small) portion of my mind that is logical isn’t what controls my behavior most of the time: it’s my emotions. And my emotional response to water running out of the tap while not being used was set by a 45 second cartoon segment from Sesame Street  probably around 1982. 

In the video, a boy turns on the faucet and starts brushing his teeth, leaving the tap on. Outside, Frank the fish circles in a pond that’s rapidly draining—you see, it’s connected by a pipe to the sink. Frank picks up a phone, calls the boy, and politely requests he turn off the tap while he washes and brushes, which the boy frantically jumps to do. Frank is spared from death, but barely—left with just enough water to cover his body. It’s clear that the boy feels bad, that he hadn’t done the damage on purpose, and that he took action as soon as he realized the effects, but also clear that the damage wasn’t “fixed” by turning off the tap. 

I don’t know if this clip made the same deep imprint on every kid who saw it, but for me it hit all the buttons; the connection between how I use water in my daily routine and the effect on living creatures (charmingly personified) was indelibly etched—not so much in my mind, but in my heart. Like the boy, I felt like I had just been called on the phone and notified that my choices were having a direct impact on my world, and that I possessed the power to shape that impact.

As educators we are always looking for ways to draw these parallels—and by draw I mean literally. For many kids, the information won’t penetrate deeply enough to change behavior, but the concrete illustrations will. Every good teacher is looking for tangible methods to bring their curriculum to life; in the realm of environmental awareness and education there are many different ideas we could impress upon our students (not using plastics, reducing our waste, picking up litter, taking only what food we intend to eat, etc.), but I think the what isn’t very important. Most important is creating a visceral experience that speaks to our emotions and makes a direct connection between our actions and the state of the planet. This is what I call our “Climate Conscience,” and once you have one it will function in any number of contexts, whispering to you about taking right actions and encouraging others to do the same.

Let’s dig into a few possible examples. Maybe we want kids to use less water and, more crucially, to become adults that are striving toward water conservation, adults who are in charge of water use. You can dream up any number of activities that require kids to ration water, like:

  • having teams compete to move water thirty feet, from one gallon container to another, by pouring water from cup to cup down a line
  • care for “plants” by sharing out a common water source and seeing what happens if some people are allowed to take as much as they want—aka “water rights”
  • having kids draw chalk circles on the ground with pictures of stuff in the world and then pull and tack pieces of yarn between the things that affect other things (such as how much food we use in school lunches and the amount of water it takes to grow it)

A few years ago my mother did an activity called “the Long Walk to Water” with kids in her Massachusetts town. Each child came with a large container and walked several miles to a pond, the same distance to water sources covered every day by girls my mother knew from working at schools in Kenya. Without assistance from adults, the kids walked to the pond, filled their water containers, and walked back to the starting point.

Needless to say, this was an eye-opening experience. Some found it almost impossible to believe this is how many, many people get their only water. One girl tripped over a tree root just before getting home and spilled her precious cargo—it was a devastating experience, even if she didn’t have to walk the whole route again as she would have done if she were actually fetching the household water. I imagine many of them have a different relationship with running water now, if primarily in their subconscious—an acute awareness as it runs through their fingers, washes their car, fills their spaghetti pots.

The reason I make an effort to save forms of energy, like hot water or the gas in my car, started when in high school we had to lift buckets full of rocks enough times to make one joule of energy, and then figured out how many joules it would take to get a car up a hill or take a five-minute shower. The ability to make a personal, physical, or emotional connection for a kid that helps them wrap their minds around abstract ideas like conservation or waste will plant a seed that grows in all kinds of soils, whether they want it to or not!

I currently have a really exciting job helping to develop educational programs for a new nonprofit organization at the Desert of Maine. When people come to see the desert, acres of sterile sand dunes shifting in the winds, they get a concrete look at human influence on the environment. The desert was a forest for thousands of years and then a working farm, until in the 1800s it was overused and grazed and the topsoil dried and blew away, exposing a glacial sand deposit. As you look at the sandy expanse, the line between what we humans do and the effect it has is short and clear—maybe not quite as direct as Frank the fish about to lose the last of his pond, but close. Thankfully, there’s a hopeful addendum to the story, in that areas called “Recovery Zones” show how Pathfinder Plants (our name for Pioneer Plants, with less negative connotation) like mosses, lichens, and pines are re-establishing a foothold on the sands. Young people can see how human influence could turn forest into desert in a matter of decades, and that Nature is powerful enough to heal this “skinned knee.”

Sometimes material that could lead to an improved Climate Conscience gets shoved to the side so we can cover “real” or “important” material, things that will be on tests, that have answers we can assess with numbers, rather than emotional impacts that might steer a kid towards turning off the tap as she brushes her teeth.

This stuff isn’t going to be on standardized testing, and it may not even be a unit you can easily assess at all. Maybe you’re taking a risk, adding extra work to the load, and hoping you have an effect.

But, maybe the future of life on Earth hangs in the balance. So, it might be worth it.




Bridget Broomfield has been a teacher in various disciplines since 2000. She believes all education is environmental education—either we’re teaching students that the environment is important, or through omission that it’s not.

Bridget works for the Desert of Maine in Freeport, developing experiential education programs for visiting students of all ages.

She can be reached at [email protected]