It doesn’t matter where we go, my son is always picking up trash. At the park, on hikes, and, much to my distress, the Walmart parking lot. What started as a lesson in keeping natural landscapes pristine has spilled over into my son’s everyday life, making him constantly aware of the world around him and his role in preserving it.

When my son was young, my husband and I always asked him to pick up five pieces of trash to throw away when we went to the beach or on hikes. We wanted him to learn to leave nature better than he found it. As a result, he became very focused on his surroundings, always looking for an opportunity to pick up trash and leave his environment a little bit cleaner, a little more cared for.

I am glad to see that this is one parenting lesson that is obviously sticking. Cultivating my son’s need to preserve his surroundings is important to me because there is great value in being mindful about our environment. Preservation gives him a sense of purpose outside of himself and a connection to the world around him, but I was surprised to find that it also plays a role in creating mindfulness as well. His habit of picking up trash is not only an exercise in being a good citizen but an act of awareness, where he is fully present wherever he happens to be.

When we set an example of preservation and mindfulness in our own lives, it sets the stage for our children to follow our lead.

Instead of moving through the world without seeing it, distracted by thoughts of what is coming next, practicing cleaning up the environment helps keep my son in the moment. Even though picking up trash seems like such a small act, I believe it is setting the stage for mindfulness as he grows. It keeps him present and focused on the now, in addition to the obvious benefits of cleaning up the environment. He notes how much better his environment looks and feels when it is clean—especially when he has a role in maintaining it.

There are plenty of reasons to teach kids about environmental preservation. Savannah Rudroff, a natural resources associate for the League to Save Lake Tahoe, says that learning to respect the environment from an early age sets children up for a lifetime of active caring. Rudroff regularly works with students and visiting youth from around the world about how to take an active role in protecting special places like Lake Tahoe.

“Kids have a strong curiosity about the world around them, and how they should be interacting with it,” Rudroff says. “When we teach about preservation at a young age, the child then has the ability to practice it throughout their lifetime. As they practice it, they will serve as an example for others around them. Oftentimes, the students we have taught have then taught their parents the same lesson and how to execute it in their own lives.”

The same can also be said for the mindfulness practice that comes along with preservation. When I see my son’s connection to the environment, and how present he is in the moment, I am reminded not only to focus on protecting the environment but to also focus on being mindful of my surroundings, whether in nature or walking down a busy sidewalk. It’s important to be present, and caring for the environment is a great way to put presence into practice.

“The best things adults can do is practice environmental preservation in their own lives,” Rudroff says. “They can then explain to children why they are practicing these good habits. Take your kids out to experience the environment, explain to them why we should respect it, and how to do that.”

When we set an example of preservation and mindfulness in our own lives, it sets the stage for our children to follow our lead. I know these practices are vital in helping me live a fulfilling life, but it is easy to get caught in the busyness of everyday life and forget to be fully present. Sometimes it takes watching my child’s example of mindfulness to remind me the importance of picking up trash, and why these small acts matter so much.

Learn more about how children can learn mindfulness: