How to Create a Toxin-Free Environment For Your Family

Do the right thing
Babies learn everything they know by observing the modeling of their parents, their older siblings and other people in their world. Now that you’ve laid the foundation for your baby to have the best environment possible, start laying the bricks as your child grows up.

“Make [being green] a part of your life from the time your baby is born,” says Wendy Gordon, who founded Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, a consumer outreach organization, in 1989, and Green Guide, a resource for the eco-conscious consumer, and is currently a consultant at the National Resource Development Council. “It should be like second nature. Bike with your child, walk, get outside-the world around us is a natural teaching environment, even if you live in a big city with high buildings. Being green is also about the little things: turning off a light, turning off the water, not being wasteful. It’s definitely a mind-set.”

Alan Greene, MD, pediatrician and author of Raising Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2007) and Feeding Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2009), agrees: “Kids learn by what you do. When you turn off a light, say, ‘We turn off the lights when we don’t need them,’ and the same thing with water. Make conservation part of their lives. And get them outside!”

This is a tact that all experts agree on: The more you show your baby-and then your toddler-the wide world around him, the more likely he’ll want to protect it.

You are what you eat
“We’re so disconnected from nature,” says Greene. “The new statistic is that kids spend 93 percent of their time inside. But you can take even the youngest baby outside-to a farmers’ market, to a farm-to see where her food comes from.” When your child is older, take her shopping and talk about organic meat or milk from grass-fed cows. “Use shopping as a teaching opportunity,” says Gordon.

Another way to teach your child about food and plants from early on is to keep your baby alongside you when you work in the garden. “Even if you don’t have a garden at home, you can take your child to the community garden,” says Catherine Karr, MD, PhD, director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Environmental Health. “When they’re babies, just watching you-and then when they get older, helping you and digging in the dirt-is great for them,” she says. “Kids love the science of planting a seed and watching something grow, picking strawberries and tomatoes and popping them into their mouths.”

“When they’re between 1 and 2 years old is when their lifelong tastes are set,” Greene says. “And this is when to teach them about fruits, vegetables, whole grains and locally grown food. Age 4 to 5 is also a great time to give them a small garden plot of their own-even a planter box on a patio.” This close relationship to food will help to make your child a less picky eater, according to Greene: “It really helps when they grow food themselves.”

And then there are worms! “A great thing to do with kids is to create a compost and a worm bin. What toddler wouldn’t want a worm bin in his kitchen or outside?” asks Gordon. “And then you can teach your child about how the worms make the soil better. Kids care about what goes on around them-especially when they can make connections.”

And those caring feelings can expand. “All kids care about animals,” says Greene. “When you tell them that polar bears don’t have enough ice and that dolphins have antibacterial soap in their blood-details like that-it makes them want to protect the environment.”

Since some plastic toys come with health risks, experts suggest finding natural items instead. Having some manmade toys is inevitable (see “Resources,” page TK), but having lots of toys is unnecessary. “For young babies-about 6 months-make a treasure basket,” says Greene. “You can put in a lemon, a wooden spoon, brightly colored material. They love the smells and the colors. For a 2-year-old, have her sort items in ice cube trays-beans, sea shells, etc.”

“We live in a high-tech, toy-crazy world,” adds Gordon. “We, as parents, should teach kids to play without television, computers and other high-tech toys-drawing pictures [on recycled computer paper], making projects from scrap, learning to sew and knit, playing with costumes. Kids can make a whole game from a pair of goggles. The idea isn’t to deny kids other toys, but to find great alternatives.” For a sleuthing game, Greene has this tip (for kids 3 and older): “Use the recycling symbols on plastic containers to help kids learn which plastics are okay and which ones are not. They love being little detectives-3 is not good, 4 is not good, 5 is good, 6 is not, 7 probably isn’t and so on.”

There is even a trend among parents to rethink the birthday present. “Donations for kids’ birthday parties are happening,” says Karr. “People of means are helping out because they realize their kids don’t need more stuff.” In that vein, Karr also notes that experiential presents-a play, museum, spending time with kids-have gotten more popular.

It’s unanimous among experts that the best “green” activity is to get your child outside-and especially with his own locomotion when he is old enough. Before that, get your baby in the habit of being outside-either in a stroller, a front carrier or a backpack-even in the winter. Just dress both of you warmly. “When your child is old enough, bike to a play date,” says Gordon. “Get out of the mind-set that it’s dangerous.” Karr agrees: “It’s really important to be a role model for your kids. As much as you can, ride bikes, walk, use public transportation. It’s more fun than being in a car.”

Making your kids environmentally conscious isn’t just about the outside world; it’s an engaging way to be with your children and learn together. And just when you think you’ve taught your child well, he’ll go to preschool or kindergarten and begin teaching you about the environment.