There’s never been a more important time in history to be, and teach your children to be, environmentally responsible. Politics aside, our planet has changed drastically over the last 100 years—and will continue to change over the next 100. Sure, we don’t know what the future will bring, but we can certainly do our part to reduce our generation’s footprint and set an example for our kids.
Kids love, and are naturally curious about the outdoors–nature, plants, animals, space, water, garbage trucks, and even dirt. All it takes to encourage their love for the earth is for you to commit to your own practices and have fun with your child along the way.
All it takes to encourage their love for the earth is for you to commit to your own practices and have fun with your child along the way.
While your efforts, like the ones we talk about below, might seem small, remember that your job is simply to inspire your child. With even the smallest examples, you can make a difference in your own community and your child will grow to understand how their actions affect the planet. Most importantly, your child will fall in love with the earth and all the beauty it has to offer.
Start with the basics: reduce, reuse, recycle
If you don’t already make it a habit, cutting down on waste is the easiest way to make your home more environmentally friendly—and it’s easy to start today. A child as young as 2 years old can understand the difference between recycle, trash, and compost, and with your help, can learn to sort trash accordingly. Of course, sorting garbage can feel like a chore, even to adults, so think carefully about how you communicate and approach these actions. Recycling can make a big difference to our planet, but your child won’t be interested in concepts like landfill space and energy economics.
To foster a love of the environment in your tiny human, start by making it all about adventure and generosity. This is where you can get creative. For example, help your toddler clean and give their used toys, books, and clothes to other kids in your neighborhood, family, or even to a donation center. You can also turn those large cardboard boxes from Amazon order into rocket ships, race cars, and treehouses before recycling them.
For older children, money and competitive challenges are great motivators for reducing waste. Let your kid keep the change you get for recycling cans and bottles or make a game to see if they can go a week without using electricity during a certain time period. These little games might not seem necessary, but they associate reducing waste with the joy of positive feedback, which makes the concept more likely to stick. Plus, children have an amazing ability to think outside the box—even you might learn something.
Kids have an inherent interest in science and nature—they want to know how and why things work. When they’re little, they like the way the rain sounds against their window and get excited about things you stopped noticing years ago: worms, squirrels, insects, falling leaves, and pinecones.
When they are a little older, they are fascinated by dinosaurs, space exploration, and ocean life, and they love to ride bikes, climb trees, and go swimming. While most of us do our best to foster our child’s interest in anything they seem to like (another book about construction—you got it!) it’s easy to forget to match their enthusiasm by challenging their imaginations.
There’s so much they don’t know. Outdoor activities like camping, hiking, or bird watching are great ways to inspire your child and help them fall in love with the beauty of the planet. The more time a child spends outdoors or in the shadows of our planet’s natural beauty, the more likely they will grow up to understand the importance of environmental consciousness. For instance, visiting our National Parks or other protected areas gives anyone, especially a child, a sense of belonging and ownership over that place and makes it more likely that they will fight to protect it in the years to come.
Talk about food
When you think about what it means to be environmentally responsible, you typically don’t think about your eating habits. Food waste and irresponsible food packaging practices, however, are major environmental issues in our country and really aren’t as hard to correct and avoid as you think. Obviously, there are some easy changes you can make as a parent (skip the single-use packets, especially when you’re at home) but how can you teach your child to eat and shop responsibility when they don’t make these choices on their own?
The more time a child spends outdoors or in the shadows of our planet’s natural beauty, the more likely they will grow up to understand the importance of environmental consciousness.
Start with gardening. Even if you don’t have a green thumb (or even a yard) growing any kind of food or herb gives your child perspective on where food comes from and how precious it is. Similarly, sit with your child while you taste new vegetables and fruits, walk with them through the farmers market pointing out what’s in season, and talk to them about the different components of the food you serve.
Ask your child questions. Where does cheese come from? Do bananas grow in our city? Why don’t tomatoes taste as good in January? For starters, you’ll create a foundational mindset for healthier, more adventurous eaters. In terms of the environment, these practices will give your child a very powerful weapon against food and energy waste: creativity.
The ability to practice sustainable eating and farming starts with food knowledge and experimentation. The more familiar your child is with how food is made, where it grows, what it tastes like, and what nutrients it provides, the more likely they are to make educated decisions about their diet—and its effect on the planet—as adults.
Cars (and minivans) are great, but we can all do our part to use them less.
Show your child that it’s perfectly normal and fun to walk, bike, or scooter to the grocery store and carry your items home in a backpack. Show them how to use public transportation safely and effectively. Take trains when you head downtown or ferries when you’re away for the summer. Or, at the very least, carpool when you feel comfortable to do so with neighbors or friends.
Every little bit counts, and the less reliant we are on our vehicles, the better our earth and air quality will be. And hey, it saves gas money!
Treat fresh water like the precious resource it is
Simply put, water is the most important resource on our planet, and it will be even more important when our children are adults. We all know the easy ways to conserve water in our households, but in our society, it’s easy to forget how lucky we are to have ‘unlimited’ access to fresh water right out of our taps and faucets.
Planting flowers or keeping plants in your home is a great way to learn about the power of water as food and about how our ecosystem reacts to lack of water. If your kid is old enough, let them have their own plant to care for. (Pro tip: use non-soapy bathwater to water plants.)
With older, more curious children, walk around your neighborhood and count the sewers and drains. When it rains, follow as the water travels from the sky into your gutters, onto the road; onto our grass, trees, and plants; and into the sewer system. The more familiar you can make your child with our water systems, the better and more committed they will be to lifelong water-saving habits.
Just remember, water conservation, like most earth-friendly practices, is one of those things where your example will mean everything. Be the leader of your household so that your child will learn your good habits and feel confident in their roles as caretakers of our planet.
This article was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.