Just because you are going on a family vacation doesn’t mean that learning should take a break too. Ecotourism is full of what educators call teachable moments or, more definitively, unplanned opportunities to explain a concept that has unintentionally captured a child’s interest.
Whether it is touring the rainforests of the Amazon, observing blue footed boobies throughout the Galapagos Islands or understanding the water issues that surround the Okavango Delta in Botswana, ecotourism is a vacation experience that provides boundless opportunities to teach younger generations about the fragility of ecosystems and the significance of heritage.
Who among us has not witnessed the common occurrence while visiting the local zoo, going hiking through the wilderness or even watching a local artistic exhibit of younger children looking with absolute wonder and amazement at the spectacle of music, art, flora or fauna? There is delight followed by an onslaught of illuminating questions about people and the natural world.
These teachable moments mark milestones for a child’s personal growth and development. And the value system that is at the core of ecotourism can be a positive influence on all age groups, not just the very young.
Specifically, children can benefit from an ecotourism vacation because the experience offers an opportunity for:
- Instruction about indigenous wildlife – Ecotours are not only small group tours that allow for up-close-and-personal views of nature, but ones that are generally led by a naturalist that have been trained to understand plants, birds, insects and animals of the region and their relationships to ecosystems, thereby bringing education alive.
- Increased awareness about environmental degradation – An important component of ecotourism is to inform tourists about ways to minimize waste, soil erosion, air and water pollution so as not to disturb the environment – lessons that no doubt will stay with children.
- Involvement with conservation efforts – Whether it’s helping to record sea turtle activity in Greece or understand the destructive role of invasive plant species in the wilderness, ecotourism allows for deep knowledge of the fragility of the natural world.
- Focus on the depletion of natural resources – Whether it’s learning about how an eco-lodge harnesses solar or wind power for its operations or how countries are implementing renewable bio-energy to power engines, ecotourism teaches how the impact of tourism is affecting sustainable land development, public transportation choices and how other countries are using low-carbon technologies today.
- Exposure to cultural experiences – From tasting new foods to learning phrases in a foreign language, ecotourism interprets cultural traditions and experiences that provide long-lasting impressions about the world.
- Inspiration for a life’s passion – While snorkeling through a coral reef or observing animals in their natural habitat in Africa, ecotourism sparks the imagination to dream about a career or even find a solution to an environmental problem
Ecotourism even offers opportunities to incorporate your family vacation with your child’s science, social studies, foreign language, even art and music lesson plans. One of the most helpful and free resources available now is on the Rainforest Alliance site, which offers a kindergarten–8th grade curriculum guide.
One example lesson plan for a kindergarten student is entitled Biodiversity, which challenges children to think about the diversity of local flora and fauna in local forests versus tropical forests as they classify insect and tree species, while the 8th-grade lesson plan entitled Guatemala's Changing Forest has children learning about the Maya Biosphere Reserve by analyzing maps and determining recent changes in forest cover.
Dedication to the cause of the environment and its preservation can have a long-lasting impact on the way our younger generations feel more connected to ecosystems as well as view social involvement and economic success. Not only will children establish a deeper, longer-lasting connection with the region they are visiting during an ecotour, they will learn more about how they can make a more positive impact on the world.
Note: This article was originally written by me in February for publication by The International Ecotourism Society and has subsequently been republished for the World Wildlife Federation, Travel Junkies and the WHL Group audiences.