By Liam Heneghan
From where I write I can hear young kids goofing around in the playground beside our house. Glancing over I see one small boy heap wood-chips into the bed of a toy truck and rumble it across the lot. A cluster of children surround a bucket and with small shovels fill it with sand. One of their pals removes some of the sand from the bucket and reinstalls it away to the side of the dig. No one seems to care. At the west fence of the lot a boy and girl, both about four or so, are deep in conversation. The boys arms are folded, the girl sits on a tricycle and instructs him on some matter or another; the boy looks incredulous as if he simply can’t believe what he is hearing. Another girl runs over to their care-giver sitting on the periphery, leans over her legs and receives an encouraging pat on the back. The little girl skips away.
This small troop of children are gentling transforming the environment of the tot-lot. Small changes to be sure. Ones that will be corrected before they leave the playground for the day. The sand will be returned to the small mound to the south of the lot, the wood chips will all be swept back into place. The toys will be returned to their shelter. The lot restored, the kids leave for the day.
Kids have, seemingly, a perfectly manageable impact on their immediate environment. That which is disordered can be set to rights at the end of the day. But the total environmental impact of kids may be considerably larger than it appears at first glance. This is because a total reckoning of the ecological costs associated with childhood would take into account the environmental impact of providing for the food, shelter, clothing, transportation and other material needs of children and of disposing of their waste. Measured in this way the impacts can be surprisingly large.
To evaluate the full environmental impacts of children, researchers working with a kindergarten school located on the grounds of the University of Queensland calculated the ecological footprint associated with the seventy five kids attending that school. An ecological footprint is a measure of demand on the Earth and is calculated as the amount of land required to provide for human needs. It is reported in a unit called a “global hectare”. Global hectares are a unit of area that takes into account difference in biological productivity between area. For the students at the Queensland school, 40 global hectares was needed to support their physical needs. Thus, although the physical footprint of that school, like most schools, is fairly small, the land needed to sustain the kids and absorb their environmental waste is vastly greater: it is almost 80 times the size of the school.
An appreciation of the environmental impacts of children is emerging and, as we have seen, it is not inconsiderable. The extent of children’s impact is not, for the most part, something that kids have control over. Parents, of course, make the most consequential decisions on their kid’s behalf: where they live, what stuff they can have, how they spend their time. Eventually, though, those carefree kids playing in the tot-lot will make their own decisions, and, invariably their impact on their surrounding world will grow. Those childhood games in the tot-lot of moving sand, digging and filling-in holes, and all those small rearrangements of the land will be games no longer, and will be on a grander scale. The kids will put away childish things, and taking up the implements of adulthood, they will greatly expand their footprints.
Ref: Heidi McNichol, Julie Margaret Davis & Katherine R. O’Brien An ecological footprint for an early learning centre: identifying opportunities for early childhood sustainability education through interdisciplinary research. Environmental Education Research Volume 17, Issue 5, 2011