On a recent blustery day, my two kids, husband and I planted trees at the Sandy River Delta, a 1,000-acre park outside Troutdale, with the Lower Columbia Estuary Partnership. When we got home, the girls rushed inside to tell their visiting grandparents all about it.

“We planted 10 trees!” exclaimed Edie, 4. “Some of them were as tall as my neck!”

My mother-in-law oohed and ahhed over Edie’s prolific tree-planting work, and then asked Maxine, 2, what was her highlight from the volunteer day.

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“Me ate two donuts!” Maxine cried out.

The ecological benefit of planting trees may not have been immediately obvious to our pastry-loving toddler, but it’s ever more crucial to raise children to care about, and protect, the environment. We live in a time when polar bears are running out of ice, plastic garbage patches form in the ocean and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to climb.

My anxieties about the future of the planet have quieted a bit since I became a mother — more a result of competing worries (Are the girls getting enough iron? Will this cold turn into croup? Are other parents judging me because Maxine isn’t potty trained yet?) than a reduced risk to the environment and our future. Yet it’s my responsibility, and my family’s, to do our part in safeguarding our children’s inheritance: The earth.

I have to remind myself, though, that being green isn’t an either/or proposition; it’s a continuum, and there’s always an opportunity to improve. That’s what I want to show my children as I try to raise them to be conservationists: Even if they don’t do everything “right,” they can still be a positive force in the world.

Here, then, are some ideas to get you and your budding environmentalists active.

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Volunteer
Even toddlers can help plant trees, as Maxine did this spring, or clean up a local park. I particularly love that my girls get to participate in a group in these opportunities, showing that giving back depends on the whole community. Look for organizations like Friends of Trees, which runs kid-friendly volunteer plantings virtually every weekend.

Get outside — often
The more time kids spend in nature, the more likely they are to want to protect the environment when they grow up, according to researchers from Cornell University. The connection may seem like a no-brainer, yet it’s still crucial to make a concerted effort to push back against national trends (and sometimes children’s preferences) of indoor play and constant screen time.

Get your science on
Conservationists are keen observers, and you can help your kids hone that skill by becoming citizen scientists. Check out the projects at SciStarter.com: Your family can contribute to actual research projects by recording bird songs, uploading photos of the creepy crawlies that live in your vegetable patch or stargazing to measure light pollution.

Leave it better than you left it
My family has a rule whenever we go to a playground or park: We each pick up a piece of trash before we leave. I keep an eye on the kids to ensure they don’t grab anything dangerous or disgusting, but such a simple and easy habit can instill a conservationist’s mindset.

Take an animal’s side
My kids’ beloved pastime of pretending to be babies is only slightly less annoying than their game of acting like monkeys, but it turns out swinging from pretend trees might make them more empathetic to non-humans. People who were asked to think of the world from an animal’s point of view felt more concerned about the environment than those who were told to be objective, according to research conducted at the University of California, San Marcos. I practice this idea when we go outside by asking what animals might think of the trees we planted or what a fish might do with a piece of trash floating in the river.

Catherine Ryan Gregory
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