At Prairie Hill Learning Center, a Montessori school for children aged 18 months to eighth grade, part of its energy is generated from solar panels and wind turbines. The adolescent building (called the Earth House) is insulated with straw bales. Kids tend gardens, ride ponies and gather eggs from the chickens on the 12-acre farm south of Lincoln.
It's the perfect place to raise environmentally conscious kids. But you don't need to have solar panels or an acreage to teach your kids about caring for the Earth, said Mandi Schadwinkel, Montessori teacher for the primary community at Prairie Hill.
Families can start with simple things such as using materials that aren't disposable. At Prairie Hill, kids eat from porcelain plates, drink from real glasses and use cloth napkins. When the children are excused from the table, they put any food waste into a bucket of scraps for the chickens or a bucket for compost. When they wash their boots after playing outside, children save the water and find a tree or living thing that can use the water. By the door of each learning area, a small basket holds recyclable items. One of the chores children can choose to do is to take the recycling out to the bins at the end of the day.
Schadwinkel said some kids don't even know where the wastebasket is.
"When we sweep our floors and we collect the dirt in a dust pile and we say, 'Now you can throw that away,' it's not uncommon for a child to say, 'Where do I throw that away?' because they're so used to thinking about recycling," she said.
Rather than sitting kids down to teach them about environmentalism, teachers talk about choices as they go through the day's activities. A teacher may say, "It seems like there is a lot of energy from the sun coming through the windows. I don't think we need these electric lights on," or "It seems like the air is getting warmer now. Let's close the windows so the house stays cool."
"These things may seem obvious to us, but it might not be to the kids," she said.
Kids do internalize the values that are modeled by adults, she said.
"We just try to provide experiences for them in everyday situations, so that it doesn't become something that is isolated. It's just part of life."
Lincoln parents Mark and Linda Anderson also are striving to raise environmentally conscious children. They got rid of all their kids' plastic toys several years ago. Now Lily, age 8, and Nels, age 6, play with cloth, wooden or metal toys -- and often they simply play with the utensils in the kitchen drawers.
The Andersons try to reuse items rather than buying something new. They use tin cans to organize personal care items. Old salsa jars become cups, and the clerks at Starbucks love it when they bring their own jars for tea, they said. They save seeds from their garden to use the next year. When some friends tore out a brick patio recently, Mark and Linda used the bricks to line a wood chip path in their yard.
Their values are derived from their Christian faith, Linda said.
"God tells us to take care of the things that He gives us," she said. They seek to live their values in their daily life rather than preach to their kids. "It's not so much that we tell our kids what's important. It's what we do."
Joe and Miriam Heider try to spend as much time outside as they can with their two girls, Azalia, age 3, and Lucia, age 9 months. Although they live in the middle of Lincoln, they find plenty of ways to expose their children to nature. They also make an effort to buy and consume less.
"The motto is reduce, reuse, recycle," Miriam Heider said. "The first part of that is reduce -- reduce the amount of stuff you're buying, reduce the amount of stuff you're using so that you're not wasting as much."
She encourages families to be creative in seeking green solutions. When the Heiders' sink drain clogged, they chose to remove the drain and save the water in a bucket. Now they use that water to flush the toilet.
Living a sustainable lifestyle can be a little more work, Miriam said.
"It's not necessarily harder; it just takes more time, and that's harder in our fast-paced society," she said.
The Andersons' advice for families who want to instill environmental values: Don't try to do everything at once.
"Set goals that you would like to achieve," Mark said. "There's a fantastic amount of things you can do to benefit the environment. If you try to do everything all at once, that can be really daunting. Just start from where you are and don't expect to be perfect."