From toddlers to teens, it's never too early to start teaching your kids about sustainability. Here's an age-appropriate guide to get you started.
The mounting news about climate change is enough to make any parent sick with worry. What does it all mean for our kids’ future? But don’t despair just yet – there’s so much we can do to help! By teaching our kids about sustainability and how to take care of the environment, we can ensure they have an interest in the world around them, as well as a greener future.
This might seem like an awfully big topic for our little loves, and far beyond their understanding. But there are plenty of ways we can teach kids about sustainability, no matter their age. So, where to begin? The best way is to start small. Here are some sustainable tips – appropriate for different age groups – to help your kids learn about treading lightly on the planet.
How to teach toddlers about sustainability
Spend time in nature
Apartment living can sometimes make this a little trickier, but wherever you’re based, you can check out your local botanical gardens or nature playground. A walk around the gardens appreciating the trees, plants and wildlife is an activity the whole family will love!
Collect flowers, leaves and feathers
An activity like this helps kids become aware of the natural beauty that is all around us. Help foster their curiosity by talking to them about each item. “Look at this pretty feather. Can you guess what type of bird it came from?” You can also talk about why leaves fall, or the role of insects in pollination of flowers. You could also try a nature scavenger hunt!
Become insect inspectors!
We might find watching a caterpillar on a leaf less than appealing, but kids love it! This is another great way to encourage their interest in nature. By understanding more about insects, they will develop an interest in protecting all living creatures. Planting flowers to attract butterflies and insects will nurture their fascination.
Browse fresh produce
Channel kids’ energy in the shopping aisles by enlisting their help to select fruit and veggies. They will most likely choose some ugly ones – so let them! Embracing ugly fruit & veg saves on food wastage which helps reduce our impact on the planet.
It can be fun to make a game out of recycling, after all, toddlers love to put things into the bin! Teach them about the different materials (glass, metal, paper, plastic) and why we use a different bin for these items. They will love helping you put items in the correct bin. (And, of course, wash hands afterwards!) This is a great start to recycling right.
How to teach pre-schoolers about sustainability
Learn about animals
Kids develop a love for animals at an early age. We can encourage this and teach them how we can protect the habitat of their favourite animals. Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series, Our Planet, is a beautiful depiction of animals in their natural surroundings. It also shares important messages about the impact of climate change and loss of biodiversity – as well as positive actions we can take. It’s an uplifting show that the whole family will appreciate and enjoy.
There are some lovely environmental books around that cover important topics on taking care of the planet. We love “Questions and Answers about Plastic” and “Captain Green and the Plastic Scene”, to name a couple. (And you never know, adults might learn something too!)
Be selective with packaged goods
When you take the kids shopping for groceries, talk to them about which products you choose and why (as well as the products you don’t buy!). Of course, it’s best to opt for products with no or very little packaging, but if you do need to buy something packaged, explain to them why you are making that choice. This will help them understand how we can consciously reduce our impact by carefully choosing what we buy.
Get creative with arts & crafts
When you buy a packaged product, consider how the packaging can be reused, or even upcycled into an art project. My kids are now into week two of using a large cardboard box as a toy! (It has evolved from a car to a train to a dinosaur!) Help them make their own recycled paper, or in the lead-up to Christmas, try upcycled decorations.
Make plastic-free lunch boxes
Make zero-waste a normality for your little ones by removing the plastic from their lunchboxes. Invest in a few reusable containers to put all of their snacks and lunch into instead.
Clean up the beach
Who doesn’t love the beach?! You can use a fun family trip to the beach as another opportunity to foster your kids’ love of the natural world. On your next beach trip, collect a few pieces of rubbish and take them home to dispose of. Explain to your kids that we can make a difference by saving just three pieces of plastic from our waterways. Remember to “Take 3 for the sea!”
Get real with rubbish
Kids in this age group can start to get more involved in sorting recycling products, and even washing the items before placing in the correct bin (which is important to avoid contamination of larger collections!). Soon, they will likely be the ones keeping the whole household in check!
How to teach school-age kids about sustainability
Conserve energy and water
Explain the importance of using only what we need, and why we need to be conscious of conserving water and energy.
Talk about food wastage
Explaining the impact of food wastage on climate change can be complex. So, work with your kids to put practical plans into place to reduce food wastage in your home. These can include creating a meal plan, growing food from leftovers, or even helping to set up a compost for your household!
Think about food choices
Share the environmental impact of our food choices (especially meat and dairy), and their impact on climate change. Ask kids to contribute by choosing their favourite plant-based meals for your weekly meal plan, and even help to cook! Or, check out these kid-friendly vegan restaurants for an added treat!
Start to declutter
Help them sort through their old clothes and toys to give to others who may be able to use them. For older kids, you could help them to sell their pre-loved items online. Selling can be preferable to donating your old items as it almost assures them a new lease of life. (And of course, the extra pocket money is an added bonus too!)
Go for reusables
I live by the commitment that if I forget my reusable coffee cup, I miss out on my takeaway coffee. It’s not an easy one, but it makes me accountable. Through this simple example, my kids have learned the importance of forgoing single-use plastic, and also a bit about consequences.
Inspire bigger conversations
Kids in this age group are likely to have opinions to share and might even come up with sustainable ideas on their own. Helping them to assess the environmental impacts of their actions is critical to understanding how to make change. You can share about why the earth is warming, the effects of rising sea levels on coastal communities, the importance of biodiversity in farming, and the risks of microplastics entering the food chain. (Choose how much you share based on your child’s level of maturity and understanding).
Support home projects
Support them in taking positive actions by helping to manage in-home projects, such as a small herb or veggie garden, or being in charge of sorting the recycling. They will love getting involved and seeing the fruits of their labour.
Give greener gifts
Research has shown that owning fewer toys can actually have a positive impact on kids. Depending on their age and level of understanding, you might consider suggesting they ask for a donation to their selected charity, such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), in lieu of a gift. Of course, we don’t want to rob them of their childhood fun, but this could be an impactful way to help them think beyond themselves and consider the greater good. Other ideas on gifts for kids can be found here.
Lastly, a few guiding principles for success:
- Make it fun – kids learn best when taught in an interactive and light-hearted way.
- Encourage questions to help them understand, and be prepared to answer honestly (especially the “Why?” questions!)
- While we don’t want to sugar coat the facts, avoid fear campaigns. We want to teach and empower, so keep it positive and focus on the positive actions we can take to make a difference.
- Lead by example. Show them what you do to live sustainably, how to do it, and explain why. Whether it’s as simple as switching to eco-friendly wet wipes and diapers, or as grand as volunteering every weekend – they will learn best by following your lead.
Overall, if you want to teach kids about sustainability, focus on the actions we can take and the impact we can have on the planet, however small a scale it may be. And remember, every little counts!
Words by Elly Both
Elly is a self-professed green geek, and the Founder of Bright Green – a sustainability consultancy based in Singapore. In her spare time, you’ll find her at the Singapore Zoo or Botanical Gardens with her kids, or writing blogs on living a greener life! Bright Green works with individuals, families and businesses to help them reduce their carbon footprint and live a greener lifestyle. Check out their online store full of sustainable, plastic-free products here!