Helping Kids and Teens Cope During Trying Times: A Case for Activism Through Letter Writing | Nature Updates

When I was in Grade 12, my Environmental Science teacher, Janice Palmer, had us scour local newspapers for environmental stories. At least once a week for a couple of months, we were asked to submit a letter to the editor in response to a story of our choice. She coached us on correct letter to the-editor format and tone, and of course, we had to show her a carbon copy before submitting it to the paper. It was a big moment in my teenaged life when one of my letters was printed in the Globe & Mail,

Smog alert in Toronto, 2006 © Lone Primate CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

That experience over forty years ago hooked me on letter writing. It also inspired me to pass the letter-writing torch to students in my own classes and school eco-teams. They wrote to various people including the School Council, local representatives, MPs, MPP’s and local businesses. Many of those letters had exciting results, and it was a thrill to see how empowering that was for them.

Red-tailed hawk with littered mask © Pat Schleiffer

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for children and teens to receive a stimulating education and to connect with others. On top of that, many young people are becoming increasingly anxious about climate change, the loss of species and other environmental issues.

Learning to write persuasive letters does a lot more than tick several boxes in the Ontario language curricula. Writing letters to real people about real issues can help young people feel connected, accomplished, hopeful and empowered.

Breaking Up With Plastic workshop, 2019 Youth Summit
Breaking Up With Plastic workshop, 2019 Youth Summit © Chloe Jakob

Where to Start

In recent years, teachers have been asked to make a shift from “sage on the stage” to facilitator of inquiry. I believe that all of us who interact with young people could benefit from this approach. Instead of telling young people what to think, the goal is to:

  1. Find out what they are thinking, wondering and worrying about. Parent and climate activist Harriet Shugarman stresses that these conversations should be ongoing, rather than one-offs.
  2. Help children plan an investigation that will answer their questions. They can find great photos and accurate information on Ontario Nature’s Campaigns and Advocate for Nature webpages.
  3. Co-create a Home Action Plan to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint.
  4. Send a letter. Ontario Nature’s Action Alerts are pre-written, which makes them excellent to use as models. Of course, your child’s letter will be more impactful for them and for the recipient if it is in their own words, or at least contains a personal message. Read Ontario Nature’s tips for effective letter-writing,
Youth Summit workshop, 2018, writing exercise
Youth Summit workshop, 2018 © Daynan Lepore

Take Action for Nature in Nature

The power of taking action for nature outdoors cannot be overstated. Not only can time spent in nature combat attention difficulties and other problems associated with nature deficit disorder, but as Dr. Julie Boan puts it, “research supports what we already know from experience. We feel better when our senses connect us to nature.” Why not take your letter-writing outside?

Litter cleanup, Our Special Spaces, Oshawa, 2014 © Espy Salas

Going Beyond Letter-writing

For more inspiration, check out Ontario Nature’s Take Action webpage. You could participate in community science, join the Nature Guardians Youth Programs, volunteer or attend an event like the Youth Summit for Mother Earth.

Ontario Nature Youth Council member Aidan B on CBC Fresh Air
Ontario Nature Youth Council member Aidan B on CBC Fresh Air

The Goal is Empowerment, Not Stress

Both seasoned activist Harriet Shugarman and young activist Aidan Brushett offer sage advice that budding activists of any age would be well-advised to consider before taking on a particular cause. One of my favorites from Aidan: “Accept what you cannot control and focus on what you can”.

Susan Sheard is a mostly retired teacher. When not teaching or letter-writing, she can often be found outside enjoying nature.

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