Throwing an eco-friendly New Year's Eve party

Help kids ring in the New Year—and celebrate the Earth—with these fun and festive tips.

Christa Dunlap still remembers folding origami animals with her son instead of buying decorations for the holidays. “I came from a big family and we didn’t waste anything,” says Dunlap, program director at California State University of Northridge’s Child and Family Studies Center. “We made new things out of old things.”

Reusing and recycling for a family New Year’s Eve party is a great way to ring in the New Year—and teach children that protecting the planet can also be fun. “Origami out of newspaper circulars make a great New Year’s garland,” Dunlap says. “Everything is new when you’re looking through kids’ eyes.”

This kind of thinking is needed especially around the holidays. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans throw away 25 percent more garbage between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than any other time of year. (That equals 25 million tons of holiday trash.) On New Year’s Eve, that includes party hats, noisemakers, party poppers, and confetti—most of which are made of nonrecyclable plastic.

But you can have a bang-up party and still protect the planet. Plus, celebrating New Year’s Eve as a family can be beneficial to kids’ mental health as they continue to deal with the strain of the pandemic.

“Good coping requires us to find the positive moments even in a sea of darkness,” says Mary Rourke, director of Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology. “It shows children that there are things to celebrate. A party like this can provide that opportunity.”

It's also a great chance to instill a reassuring sense of routine and predictability. For instance, Rourke says her family didn’t celebrate last year like they usually did, and she definitely noticed an emotional change.

“I realized we hadn’t been punctuating our lives with the rituals that help us know who we are and feel connected to the people who matter to us,” she says.

So whether your kids plan to wait up till midnight or ring in Noon Year’s Eve, here are ideas for a throw down without all the throwaways.

Dress to the nines

Even if you’re watching the ball drop on TV, dressing up makes a party … a party. “It signals to us that there’s something different and special about this moment,” Rourke says.

But buying your child a special one-and-done outfit for the evening impacts the environment. “People think that they’ll just send that clothing to Goodwill when they’re done, and it will be reused,” says Molly Nation, assistant professor of environmental education at Florida Gulf Coast University. “But about 10 percent of donations wind up in landfills.”

And a lot of the rest are shipped to other resellers—sometimes overseas—which also strains the planet’s resources. Try on these ideas instead. 

Let kids shop in your closet. Got fancy things hanging around from parties past? Big kids will get a kick out of styling them to their taste, and you can help little ones twist and tie outfits to fit. Here’s to photo ops.

Go color crazy. Put on everything … red! Pick one color per family member, then each person rushes to put on everything they can find in that color. Non-clothing items count if they fit! (Kitchen-towel scarf? Banana hat? Sure!) Picky kids can choose their own colors—the only rule is monochrome.

Make party hats. Teach your kids to fold old-school paper hats they can decorate. “How about using some recyclables—like ribbon scraps, small bits of foil or gift wrap, or colored tissue—to add flair?” Dunlap suggests. Or if you have old ball caps hanging around, challenge kids to decorate them using buttons, stickers, or small toys from parties past—a glue gun will stick them on.

Decorate craftily

Why let manufacturers have all the fun? Young crafters can go wild with materials you already have.

Ditch the balloons. These decorations often wind up in waterways, where animals mistake them for food. Instead, younger children can craft a paper pom-pom puff, and older kids can try this more complicated 3-D star (above), both from the Nat Geo Kids website.

Make something minty. Got an overabundance of candy canes? Challenge kids to spell out 2022. Make hearts from two canes facing each other. Or let older kids turn four of them into New Year’s glasses: Use two whole canes for the temples, looping the curved part around the ears. Cut two other curves for the “lenses” (younger kids can help), then hot glue them to each other and the temples.

Reuse wrapping paper. Little kids can tear and crunch pieces so that older kids can thread them together to make a garland. Older kids can also try cutting or punching out a series of circles, glue-sticking them along a string, and hanging them vertically or horizontally.

Say Happy New Year. Got a cardboard shipping box? Challenge older kids to build “2022” or “Happy New Year” out of cardboard, or cut pieces for younger ones to paint or draw on. For little kids, outline the letters or numbers and let them fill them in with their handprints.

Take a nature walk. Kids can get wintery table decorations wherever they find fallen pinecones, leaves, pine branches, or interesting sticks. They can be left natural, colorfully painted, or glued to make shapes. (For instance, make a flower by gluing a starburst of large leaves to a center pinecone.)

Make some noise

When kids craft these themselves, they’ll feel extra proud to get loud! 

Blow a horn. This DIY birdsong maker (above) made with a paper towel tube, wax paper, and rubber bands doubles as a New Year’s Eve party instrument.

Create a shaker. Start saving those toilet paper tubes. After decorating, pinch one end shut with masking tape; spoon in beans, rice, buttons, or pennies; and tape shut the other end. Or try it with two paper plates instead. Too much work? “We bang pots and pans and play musical instruments,” says Rebecca Sage Allen, who teaches waste reduction in Burbank, California.

Build a glass xylophone. Let older kids fill up a row of wine glasses with different amounts of water, then use a chopstick or pencil to ring in the New Year! For a more festive look, add drops of different food coloring into each glass.

Throw confetti

Mylar confetti and glitter can wind up in waterways and aren’t biodegradable. Try these ideas instead.

Make leaf confetti. Kids can gather leaves and use a hole punch to create as much as they like, or simply tear them up in their hands. Another waste-free way to do it? “Throw birdseed outside,” suggests Dunlap. BONUS: Toss this confetti outdoors for zero cleanup.

Blow bubbles. They’re fun, dramatic, and much easier on the environment than other types of confetti. Plus, kids can make their own bubble solution. “We use Dawn dish soap and add a little bit of water,” Dunlap says.

Throw light. “Instead of throwing confetti, how about throwing light?” Dunlap suggests. Shiny tree ornaments can look like mirror balls when kids shine flashlights on them. Other ideas: mirrors, prisms, or old CDs.

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