ECO-KIDS Children are eagerly teaching parents how to go about saving the planet

November 14, 1991|By Mary Corey

It's not enough that Kathy Guenther has sworn off spray paints and recycles religiously.

Her daughter Kirsten isn't satisfied.

What about joining the animal rights movement? Avoiding aluminum altogether? And volunteering at the recycling center, Mom?

"Kirsten is always yelling at me to do more," the Perry Hall mother says with a sigh. "Sometimes, I want to say, 'Kirsten, I'm so stressed out I can't think about that right now. . . . Then I feel guilty. She knows what needs to be done. She looks to me as a role model, and she sees I'm not doing it."

Call them the environmentally correct. They are the pint-sized protectors of the ozone, the sea otter and all things green. Taught by schools and the media about the importance of saving the Earth, these preteens are spreading the word with a vengeance. A vengeance so strong, in fact, that increasingly adults are feeling its force.

"Children are leading their parents," says Diana Huss Green, editor in chief of Parents' Choice magazine. "And in some cases they're a little bit like eco-pests."

Among the tactics of the neo-earth kids: boycotting fast food restaurants that use plastic foam; surveying neighborhood recycling efforts; and chastising parents who smoke, waste energy or wear furs.

"Deep down inside, youngsters are frightened for their future, and they want things to improve," says Dorothy Davis, a science teacher at Harper's Choice Middle School in Columbia.

Recent studies show that youngsters are, indeed, concerned about the earth. More than half believe there will be less oil, fewer trees and more polluted waters by the time they become adults, according to a June poll of 400 children (ages 8 to 12) conducted at Sesame Place, a play park in Langhorne, Pa.

"I'm very worried because this is the only world we get. We only have one chance," says Tim Christofield, who recently participated in a recycling mini-course for sixth graders at Canton Middle School.

His teacher, Cynthia Simmons, believes that having youngsters take an active role in environmental issues helps allay their fears. Last month, she and 12 students cleaned one square block around the school. "This is something they can do as children. It's not something where you have to say, 'Wait until you get

older,' " she says.

Many schools are leading the eco-charge, with reading, writing and arithmetic often giving way to the 3 Rs of the '90s: recycle, reduce and re-use. Words like "biodegradable" are turning up on spelling lists, and some schools are even taking their classrooms outdoors.

Erica Pencak takes pride in the efforts she and her classmates at Harper's Choice Middle School are making, from the recycling bins ("paper only," "containers only") and the bulletin boards ("Look what we've done with our trash") to the winter wheat garden they have planted to provide food for the homeless.

But her enthusiasm doesn't end with the afternoon school bell.

"I make sure to watch my parents," the 11-year-old says. She often turns off the faucet when they're washing dishes or brushing their teeth. "Sometimes I get on their nerves. . . . but I feel like it's something that needs to be done," she says.

Kirsten puts smoking and cruelty to animals high on her list of crimes against the environment. "I hate when my aunt smokes because it damages her lungs and it hurts the Earth. . . . I hate seeing rabbits' foots at the store. That gives me the shivers. Then there's crocodile pocketbooks. I would feel weird carrying those," says the 10-year-old student at Gunpowder Elementary School in Perry Hall.

But this newly found concern has some merchandisers seeing another shade of green: the color of money. Environmentally themed toys -- ranging from Hugg-a-Planet, a soft-sculpture globe, to Toxic Crusaders, a line of "hideously deformed" action figures and accessories -- represent a growing part of the industry.

"About three years ago we began to see the greening of toyland," Ms. Green says. "At the beginning of 1991, the trend became a tidal wave."

Statistics prove her point. Annual sales for the Toxic Crusaders line, which also has spawned a Saturday morning cartoon, are projected at $25 million, according to Karl Aaronian, director of marketing for Playmates Toys, the California-based company that manufactures Toxic Crusaders and Teen-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles.

"The environmental message is important, but we've gone about it in a subtle way. We wanted it to be fun," he explains.

But some educators question whether these toys and cartoons carry any message at all.

"I think most of them are horrible," says Joe Chadbourne, president of the Institute for Environmental Education, a non-profit foundation in Cleveland. "They're using an interesting social problem to package products more than trying to encourage a sound environmental ethic."

To youngsters like Kirsten, however, toys are secondary to the real matter at hand: protecting the environment. And if the determination in her voice counts for anything, the Earth is in good -- albeit not fully formed -- hands. "I feel bad for the Earth now. I don't want it to wear away and be forgotten," she says. "When I'm an adult, I'm going to recycle everything."

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