Small Steps for Growing a No Impact Family

Since trying the No Impact Week experiment, our family has learned to be mindful of our habits, and live with more joy.
Daughter running photo by Kathy Kottaras

No Impact Week's Give Back Day: Kathy takes her family on a day trip to clean up the Los Angeles River.

Photo by Kathy Kottaras.

“Every year and a month, a sunflower grows in the Arctic,” my daughter, Madeline, explains, pointing to our garden.

Sixty degrees is cold for eight a.m. on an August morning in Los Angeles. So we zip our jackets tight and wait for the sun to peek out through the gray clouds. To my California-raised daughter, it is the Arctic, so we spend the morning searching for polar bears and foxes. 

Before completing the No Impact Week experiment earlier this year, we would wake up and walk straight from the bedroom to the living room to turn on the TV, even before eating our breakfast. We would plug in and zone out, ever reliant on technology and ignorant of how much energy we were draining—not only from the grid, but from our family.

Now, on most mornings, we go to the dining room, where we color and read; or we go to the living room to play puzzles or imagine that we’re surfing; or on a morning like today, we go outside. 

Out in the chilly morning air, we hear the yip-yip-yips of the foxes behind the zucchini. My daughter finds some of her clipped blonde hair tangled in a spider web, where we had played beauty shop the week before. We follow chalk-marked bear tracks across a chalk-lined river, Madeline skipping along the cobblestones (after she carefully colors them in). When we wear out, we use orange and yellow to draw a fire and hot dogs and marshmallows, and she draws a bed on the steps for us to sleep under the stars.

I realize that widespread, global changes must begin with small steps—and certainly, small children.

Since completing the No Impact Week experiment in January, we’ve certainly become more mindful of our habits and their impact on our world. But even better, we’ve started living more creatively—with more joy. We move more slowly, and for a family living in a 21st-century city, this is the greatest challenge of all. We must plan our meals more carefully, noting when the farmers market is open and pacing ourselves through our food supply. We spend many weekends weeding our vegetable garden, my husband and I meditating over scourge and dandelions while my daughter pirouettes around the tomatillos. We walk—a lot—and my daughter has patience for this. She spends her time naming flowers and describing birds. We sit outside more: on our front porch, counting cars; in our backyard, where Madeline leans against me in partner yoga, a mere seedling to my quivering tree; at night, listening to the freeway under the blue light of the moon. I cook every day, and I’ve even started baking bread. We search for polar bears in the garden.

It is not always this way. I still run frantically around the house, turning off lights. I live in a city where driving is damn near mandatory, especially if we want to keep our jobs and pay our mortgage. I probably spend too much time online, and we just got three months of cable for free (thanks a lot, AT&T).

But a life where technology is a tool and not an addiction, where we spend more time smiling than worrying, where my daughter knows the names of all the herbs and can identify them at the local garden preserve—this is the life I want to pursue.

A life where we spend more time smiling than worrying, where my daughter knows the names of all the herbs and can identify them at the local garden preserve— this is the life I want to pursue.

I took part in the No Impact Week experiment as a way to test myself: to see how far off the grid I could go, and how little waste I could produce. I care about my planet, and while I believe that widespread, global changes must be made to ensure our existence, I also realize that those changes must begin with small steps—and certainly, small children. This planet, with its suffering and turmoil and pain, needs compassionate girls and boys who are able to name their world, so that they can grow up to respect it.

The week-long experiment gave our family a shot in the arm, an inoculation against resignation that life has to be rote and routine. After that week, we were pumped with a desire for something better—for our family, for our neighbors, for our city, and for our world. 

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Back in our arctic tent of palm leaves, our cat appears. Madeline announces that this is the polar bear we’ve been seeking.

“Now what do we do?” I ask her, “Now that we’ve found the polar bear.”

“We must protect it,” she says. “We must love and protect it.”

When the bright disc of the sun appears in the clouds, its warm silhouette breaking the spell of the morning’s adventures, we rub sunscreen into our skin—first our faces, then our legs, and, with jackets torn off, our arms and hands. Not too long after, the snow disappears and it is summer again. Our impact on the earth this morning has been minimal, but the impact on my daughter is immeasurable.


  • Sometimes the hardest part of changing our lives and world is believing that it’s possible. Colin Beavan on finding a place to start.

  • Mother, teacher, and eco-pilgrim Kathy Kottaras' lyrical take on the inner adventure of going No Impact.

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