This post was written by Isabel Sans, an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina and a Fall 2023 Teaching with Primary Sources intern.
This semester as a Teaching with Primary Sources intern, I researched the Library of Congress’ collections to see how young people throughout history have helped to protect the environment. Caring for nature may seem like a challenge too complex for everyday people, especially children, to address in their daily lives. But primary sources from the Library’s digital collections offer interesting historical clues about how children have successfully helped their communities by taking environmental action. How might these sources inspire you and your family to care for nature in your local community today?
Burgeoned by the success of the nature study movement, school gardens grew popular in the early 1900s. American students in public and private schools planted, tended, and harvested gardens. These activities helped build their appreciation of the natural world and were a hands-on way to learn about science. They were immensely popular—groups of up to 1,000 children could transform entire city parks into public gardens. School gardens were considered especially beneficial for urban students who may not have had as much access to nature in their daily lives, like these children in New York City. What gardening tasks can you see students performing in these photos?
By 1914, America had a huge network of school gardens. During World War I, existing gardens were organized by the Bureau of Education into a collective School Garden Army. Focused on alleviating food shortages caused by the war and reducing food waste, its motto was “A garden for every child. Every child in a garden.”
The Bureau of Education distributed pamphlets to teach children about every part of gardening from the soil of their plots to ways they could preserve their harvests. Today’s school gardens continue to offer hands-on opportunities for learning about nature and biology, even if they are no longer tied to the war effort. Growing produce close to home may also benefit the environment by using less plastic packaging and not requiring transportation by plane, boat, or truck to get to you. If you grow food at home, your grocery store is just a step outside!
Food conservation became a concern for America when the country entered World War I. In the Library’s collections I found photos of Girl Scouts across the country farming food for their local communities in Victory Gardens. One of these Girl Scouts was Helen Tew, who in 1918 earned an award for conserving food and reducing waste, and used her writing to encourage others to produce local food in their own gardens and conserve their crop through canning and preserves.
To share her story, she wrote a message to other Girl Scouts which was published in newspapers across the country. By using food efficiently, Helen Tew and other Girl Scouts helped care for their communities and environment by reducing waste.
For a more recent example of how young people can take informed action on behalf of their communities while caring for the environment, listen to this oral history from Vermont educator Rhonda Mace. She teaches students in her community about the importance of recycling. Mace is a teacher who loves her job because she learns things from her students too! Listen from 26:20 to 28:02 to hear how one of her 3rd grade students took action with a local restaurant owner after learning about the dangers plastic straws posed to sea turtles.
During my research, I found many posters that discouraged people from littering. But when outdoor spaces get cluttered with trash, young people can help by cleaning them up. In the Library’s collections, I found photographs of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts helping to protect the environment by removing litter from natural spaces. Sometimes, they joined together with other community organizations to increase their impact.
Even our most visible public green spaces can need a clean-up sometimes. The Boy Scouts below are doing just that. Can you identify the white building in the background of this photograph from 1921?
Participating in outdoor spaces:
Young people have also helped justify protecting the environment by spending time outside and having fun in nature. These young people are enjoying the snow in Sequoia National Park. Without clean and protected parks, they might not have a place to play. I also found these photos of children on a beach and picking flowers. Connecting with nature can inspire people to care for their environment and community. How might spending time in nature as a young person influence later life activities?
During my research this semester, I loved finding ways that the Library preserved the voices and stories of young people. It showed me that no matter their age, they could have a positive impact on their environment and communities. Are you interested in helping to care for the environment? Here are some activities you can try:
Plant a garden: Children in the early 1900s tended to their own gardens at school, but you can easily plant your own garden at home. This could be a full plot in your backyard or as simple as keeping herbs on the windowsill. You can start by looking at advice from this 1915 manual on planning and planting your home garden. How might growing local food help environment?
Clean up: Young people in the past have worked together with their friends, families, and communities to keep our environment clean. Spend an afternoon with your family or friends and clean up trash from a park, stream, or other area near you. These posters from the collections may inspire your work.
Speak out! Helen Tew spoke up to encourage others to follow her example in caring for nature. Write a letter to a friend or family member about environmental stewardship: share a tip or resource that has helped you care for the environment and encourage them to try it in their community.
Participate in outdoor spaces: People have used outdoor spaces for hundreds of years, but our relationship to nature has changed over time. Look through this photo album from a camping trip to Maine from 1884. What human effects on the environment can you see in these images? Go on your own nature walk and talk together about the human effects on the environment you observe (ex.: litter, construction, noise and light pollution). What can we do to ensure the healthiest relationship between humans and nature?
During my internship, I developed an interactive primary source collection on this topic for the Source, an education center that will open at the Library in the next few years. This project can be experienced by families visiting the Library of Congress in-person in the Young Readers Center-Programs Lab, open Wednesdays through Saturday, 10 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. For more information about visiting the Library including timed entry passes, visit our website.