Eco hacks for families

These 16 clever ideas make protecting the planet simple and fun for kids.

Kids who’ve watched Greta Thunberg lead international climate change protests might believe that making an impact on the planet requires big action that’s out of reach for a typical child. The solution? Eco hacks.

Kris Bordessa—author of Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-reliant Living—says that parents can empower kids by showing them “eco hacks,” which are simple, surprising, and clever ideas that will help children find the fun in protecting the planet.

“If kids are made aware of these things, they can kind of tip the balance a little bit in their lives,” she says. “We're in kind of a rough spot right now with the climate and the environment, but people can make changes that are so simple.”

We asked Bordessa along with other experts to weigh in on clever steps kids can take toward protecting the planet—as well as foster a lifelong love for the Earth. Here's how to help them hack away!

Pet perks 

Make your own pet toys. Old egg cartons, cardboard boxes, and toilet paper tubes can be perfect for kids to construct a treat puzzle for pets to engage with. When the furry friends are finished, just add them to your compost bin.

Give a good night’s sleep. Well-worn towels, used bedding, and even some T-shirts are perfect snooze-time accessories for animals in shelters and vet offices. Check with your local operators to see what they’re accepting and have kids gather up the “new” bedding.

Home hacks 

Good to the last squeeze. Here’s an idea to protect the planet and get kids to brush their teeth! See how much extra toothpaste they can squeeze out of the tube once they think it’s empty by rolling the package tightly up from the bottom and using a binder clip to keep it in place. The pressure will make it easier to get every last squirt—and repurpose a clip you’ve probably got too many of.

Sock it to me. Before your kid tries to toss an outgrown or mismatched sock—which will likely find its way to a landfill—challenge them to see what else the sock could fit. For instance, use it to make hot chocolate mug cozies, bean-filled hacky sacks, or small bags to hold loose game pieces.

Three-minute workout. About 20 percent of greenhouse gas created in the United States comes from heating, cooling, and powering our homes, so keeping your home cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer can go a long way in reducing CO2 waste. If kids complain that they’re freezing inside, have them try a minute of jumping jacks before deciding if they really need to turn up the heat. In the summer, place a bowl of ice in front of a fan before reaching for the AC, or play a game in which you set the thermostat a bit high in the morning, and then the first person to ask for a lower temperature has to do the dishes that night.

Regrow snacks. Kids might eat their veggies if they can recycle them! When preparing celery snacks, cut the stalks about two inches off the bottom, and keep the bulb. Have kids insert skewers into the sides of the bulb about an inch from the bottom, and let the skewers rest on the top of a shallow pan of water. Within a few days you’ll start to see the roots grow. Plant it in a pot or your garden, and in about four months kids will have brand new celery to munch. Try it with green onions, garlic, or lettuce, too!

Ratty shirts welcome. Don’t add kids’ old cartoon-character T-shirts to landfills—add them to your compost pile instead. Cotton and other natural fiber T-shirts will break down and add to the organic fertilizer for the garden. Shred them and make sure to snip away non-natural parts—like many printed logos—before throwing them in.

Water works

Sing in the shower. Encourage kids to create a four-minute playlist they can listen to in the shower—when the songs are over, so is the cleanse! Scientists estimate that we use 2.1 gallons of water every minute in the shower; since the average one is about eight minutes long, cutting that time in half can have a big impact.

Tank dam. Every toilet flush sends about 3.5 gallons of water down the drain. Reduce that by having kids put sand or rocks in a small milk jug, fill it with water, then place it in the toilet tank away from moving parts. The tank won’t fill as much, which means less water wasted.

Catch your water. Set out a bucket to collect rainwater and ask kids to come up with creative ways to use it, like watering the garden or filling pet bowls.

Double duty. Instead of letting water drain down the bathroom or kitchen sink while kids are waiting for it to warm up, have them catch it in a large bowl or pot. Then they can use it to rinse dishes, water indoor plants, or try fun science experiments.

Backyard buddies

Bee kind. In the spring, help your backyard pollinators by making an easy “bee water station.” Have kids add some pebbles to a shallow pan filled with water that’s just below the top of the rocks. Place near flowers or pollinating trees and bushes so bees have an easy place to land and sip safely.  

Make butterfly potion. Have four or five overripe bananas? In The Book of Nature Connection, author Jacob Rodenburg suggests using them to make a butterfly potion. Blend the bananas with one cup of white sugar and a little bit of water. Pour that mixture along with one can of beer (which is actually optional) into a half-gallon jar. Add just enough water to make it gooey. Cover loosely. Then on a nice day, have kids soak a sponge in the solution and hang it from a tree or paint some rocks to attract butterflies.

Don’t clean up the yard. Here’s one less chore for kids: Don’t clean up leaves or tree limbs in your yard. Those can provide potential habitats for tasty insects as well as nesting birds.

Move your bird feeder. Have kids scout out your yard for evergreens (trees that won’t lose their leaves) to hang your feeder nearby. This gives smaller birds a safer place to hide while eating so they’re protected from predators like hawks or cats.

Keep it seed simple. Black oil sunflower seeds are popular with many varieties of birds, so offering that instead of mixed birdseed will attract more fliers for kids to watch. The grub will also mean fewer wasted seeds—and therefore fewer unwanted critters, like egg-eating opossums or raccoons, that are after the leftovers.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a Toronto-based travel writer and National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram.

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