Beyond Uplifting Youth Voices, Including Kids in Conversations About Water

How including kids in discussions about healthy water systems, and creating opportunities for them to connect to their watersheds builds water security.

By: Katia Bannister

“So,” I said to the circle of kids that had assembled around me, “Who here likes swimming?” A chorus of voices between the ages of six and ten shouted “Me!” in unison as their hands excitedly shot into the air, each finger straining to stretch as far upwards as possible.

“Me too! Where are your favourite places to swim?” The chorus of young voices erupted once again, this time in an uncoordinated discord.

“Cowichan Lake!”

“Skutz Falls!”

“Vimy Ridge!”

“Fuller Lake!”

“Chemainus River!”

The campers at Kin Park Kids Camp were eager to share their favourite places to swim with me and the other water-loving youth from the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society and Cowichan Valley Earth Guardians crew who were spending the afternoon — teaching a healthy watershed workshop — with them that day. For a kid, swimming, and other forms of water-play are the most tactile and meaningful ways that they can begin to develop relationships with their watersheds.

Our conversation continued on. Moving from why we love our watershed, to the threats that some of our favourite swimming places are facing, such as climate change, pollution, and invasive species, to how we can advocate for our watershed. Each of the kids — while they struggled to sit still and wait for their turns to speak — had a lot to say about their watershed, and how and why they care for it.

But when are kids ever asked to participate in discussions, decisions, or consultation about water? Most of the time it’s hard enough to convince people that youth voices are worthy of inclusion.

That’s not to say that it makes sense to invite eight-year-olds to gruelling discussions about water sanitation at local council meetings, but just like there are meaningful and age-appropriate ways to include youth in watershed stewardship, there are ways both meaningful and age-appropriate to include kids too.

“Alright,” I said, “who here likes making art?” Once again, small hands shot upwards, waving frantically through the air.

Art is one of those great ways that kids can express their thoughts and feelings in a way that holds meaning. It fuels their creativity, encourages neural and social connections, develops problem-solving abilities, and helps kids understand themselves and their world.

And not only is art meaningful to kids, it’s something that people of all ages can connect and relate to too. Art can help to expose, contextualize and resolve issues, and simultaneously shock and inspire us to action. It is a powerful tool for change.

“It looks like we have a few very excited artists in this circle,” I observed as the Kin Park campers nodded furiously in response. “That’s awesome because we’re going to be making some art together today!” The kids fought to stay still, barely able to contain their excitement as I explained the activity we were about to do. “We’re going to be painting a watershed mural,” I explained. Earlier in the week I had painstakingly traced out a depiction of a healthy and biodiverse watershed featuring salmon, frogs, forests and much more, onto an enormous King Size bedsheet, which had then been cut into squares — one for each of the campers. The squares, along with colourful paints and brushes had been laid out on a plastic folding table nearby, and as soon as they had received their instructions and an okay, the kids rushed to the art supplies and set to work on bringing their little pieces of the watershed to life.

Big paintbrush, little paint cup - Photo by Katia Bannister

Despite fluctuations in focus, each of the campers worked hard to complete their pieces of the mural. Some of the young painters favoured realism, making sure to ask what colour each plant or animal would be if they were to try to seek it out in the watershed and taking extra care to colour in the lines. Others preferred a more abstract approach, painting yellow water and purple skies, and adding in some of their own ideas about what can be found in a healthy watershed. Some chose to paint alone, and others found where their squares fit together and paired up to paint their pieces of the watershed puzzle.

Three salmon fry - Photo by Katia Bannister

As I walked around the painters, I asked each of them why they chose the square they did. One girl chose to paint one of the squares that made up the Red-legged frog because she loves the choir of frogs that croak outside her window in the summer. Another chose to paint a piece of the crayfish because her dad takes her to the Cowichan River to catch them on sunny days. A little boy also chose to paint part of the crayfish, but because his favourite colour is orange.

Connection seamlessly sewed together the pieces of our watershed mural. And it is these connections that help kids to understand why defending our watershed is important. Because despite never receiving enough credit, kids do understand. The little girl who painted the frog, she knows that invasive species like the American bullfrog are a threat to watershed health and the native frogs she loves to hear chorus in her backyard, even if she doesn't outright know that adult bullfrogs will eat anything they can catch and swallow including not just native frogs, but also native turtles, birds, fish, crustaceans, and bats. And the two campers who love crayfish understand that sewage getting piped into the Cowichan River is bad for them and for their favourite freshwater crustaceans, even if they don’t know that wastewater disposal weakens the spines and bones of fish and exoskeletons of crayfish.

The frog and the fry - Photo by Katia Bannister

Kids care about our watersheds. Helping them find ways to connect with water systems and allowing them to find ways to express their ideas about water stewardship and conservation are two important steps that we need to be taking in order to ensure a healthy and secure future for our watersheds. Because when these relationships are encouraged and nourished in childhood, they easily evolve into a life-long love of water. A love that expresses itself through appreciation and conservation. And that will follow them as they grow up — into the next generations of water champions.

Crayfish and Coho in the Cowichan - Photo by Katia Bannister

But for now, and until then, it’s important to include kids as stakeholders in decisions made about our watersheds, and foster their love of water through education, recreation, storytelling, hands-on conservation work and art.

This is not the first time that the Canadian Freshwater Alliance has supported youth and kids in using their art to celebrate their watersheds. In March, CFA — in another collaboration with the Cowichan Valley Earth Guardians crew — helped to produce Ripples, a kids art zine commemorating World Water Day. And these collaborations are only the beginning.

It’s time to go beyond including youth voices. It’s time to secure our watershed for generations to come and start including the voices of kids too.

The watershed mural created by the kids at the Kin Park Kids Camp will be on display at the Cowichan Valley Art Council’s Watershed Show: Through the Lens of Art from August 27 through to September 25. If you live in or around the Cowichan Valley, be sure to stop by!