Easy ways to turn kids into planet protectors

Change kids from everyday recyclers into stewards of the planet

It’s not unusual for kids to be concerned about the environment; we’ve been drilling common tips about protecting the Earth into their heads since before they could walk. But that doesn't mean parents should stop showing our children why doing what they do matters—in other words, how their actions can affect the world as a whole. This understanding can lead to a sense of ownership of the Earth, and therefore a greater sense of responsibility for caring for it. Here’s how to turn your radical recyclers into environmental stewards.

Connect with a Hula Hoop

Protecting nature right outside the back door is a simple step toward understanding larger global connections. One fun family challenge is to check out what’s inside a hula hoop placed on the ground in your yard. It’s amazing what you’ll find when you take inventory of the plants and animals you step over every day. Sure, that sac of spider eggs might be a total creepfest, but those little guys are probably going to end up saving you from mosquito bites someday. And those wriggly earthworms might seem small, but they play a big role in keeping the soil healthy—and therefore helping plants grow.

By challenging children to draw their own conclusions about the important roles of seemingly unimportant (or squirmy!) backyard critters, kids begin to understand how protecting nature affects the entire world. Get them started by helping them create a backyard sanctuary, or just making sure your space is wildlife-friendly.

Turn a footprint into a big step

Last summer a rash of thunderstorms left us completely without power. What began as a nuisance (No central air! No TV! Oh, the horror!) soon turned into a family challenge in energy conservation. The bonus: For a few hours, those storms forced us to reduce our carbon footprint by a hundred percent.

It’s second nature for most kids to preach about turning out the lights or shutting things off when they’re not in use. And they probably know that doing these tasks helps decrease the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. But do they know how that all affects the world? According to scientists, the average U.S. family destroys about a football field’s worth of Arctic sea ice every 30 years. That’s a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, which traps heat and contributes to climate change. And that has an impact on seafood, drinking water, crops, and even weather—things that affect all kids. (Watch a relatively simple explanation of climate change from Bill Nye the Science Guy.)

So how can kids really make a difference? Start them out with this easy carbon footprint calculator for kids. Then use the suggestions to come up with a family plan to decrease the amount of CO2 your clan puts into the atmosphere. You might want to leave the refrigerator running, though—that yogurt goes bad fast.

Create artists through upcycling

Just after Christmas our three-year-old daughter went berserk after my wife and I tried to recycle a large box. Turns out she’d been using it as a spaceship, which we realized once we saw her crayon designs all over the cardboard. Our daughter didn’t know it, but she was upcycling: giving something disposable a new use.

Most kids already recycle, and that’s an important skill to have. Still, recycling takes energy, which means more CO2 into the environment. And many recycled goods—such as clothing and toys—will one day end up in a landfill anyway. That’s what’s great about upcycling: It’s a hands-on way for children to understand that not everything is truly recyclable, and that they can protect the Earth forever by finding new life in old stuff.

Try setting a time each week to look through the recycling bin with your kids and create a building challenge: a planter, a bird feeder, a lunch bag for school.

Let kids be the inspirers

As parents, we’ve all probably gotten that side-eyed reprimand from our kids when we’ve accidentally allowed litter to get away from us. After all, children understand that trash can harm animals, choke water plants, and contaminate groundwater. But true stewards of the planet inspire people outside the family to keep the Earth clean.

Start by helping your kids organize a weekly or monthly Garbage Club. Talk through who to recruit—and how—and then pick a creative name. (The Trash Bashers? The Sidewalk Avengers?) You can even come up with goofy uniforms! Turn things up a notch by offering prizes while patrolling the streets for stray litter. (Perhaps a local community group can help with donations.) Who knows—it might even inspire your children to participate in other volunteer efforts.

Just remember those plastic gloves. It’s not all roses and sunshine when you’re picking up garbage … trust me on that.

C.M. Tomlin, a father of two and frequent contributor to National Geographic Kids, proudly goes green in matters of both the Earth and jelly bean selection.