Recycling For Kids Is A Gateway Activity To Environmental Action

by Nicola Temple on December 6, 2011

Recycling for kids is a fun way to get your children thinking about their environment while also fostering creativity.

One could even say that recycling is the gateway activity into a life-long commitment to the environment and here’s why.

A couple of years ago I heard a gentleman talk about children’s attitudes toward the environment. It was fascinating.

In fact, I searched for the original paper when I went to write this article but with no luck I’m afraid. However, I do remember the gist of it.

Essentially, kids (and frankly most adults) are more likely to take environmental action if it’s a tangible activity that is relatively easy for them. So, if you ask a class of 1st graders what they can do to help the environment, it is almost guaranteed the two most common answers will be “recycle” and “don’t throw garbage in the street”.  It is highly unlikely that any of them will say “be sure to vote for leaders with strong environmental policies and track records” because this simply isn’t relevant for them.

Ask these same elementary school kids about how to slow climate change and recycling remains their number one answer. Some will also tell you to drive less.  So for this younger age group, recycling is the fix-all answer to all our environmental concerns.

Not exactly accurate, but certainly a step in the right direction! The best result from the elementary kids was that almost all of the children had a positive attitude toward the environment and wanted to take action to make it a better place.

However, somewhere between elementary school and high school, this attitude shifts to frankly not caring. Despite the shift in attitude, all the students surveyed still considered recycling to be the number one thing they could do to help the environment.

This shift in attitude seems to stem from the fact that suddenly the environment is no longer relevant in the daily life of a teenager. Elementary kids recycle because they are still at the age where they listen to authority – they do it because we tell them to and we rattle off some reasons why, which they can regurgitate back when asked.

However, as soon as kids start to question authority they are less likely to do something unless they see the direct relevance to their lives.

So, with this information in hand, the key is to not only teach our budding environmentalist pre-schoolers and elementary students to recycle, but to also make it relevant to them. Start to make the connections from the beginning so that they aren’t just doing it because we said so, but because they can make a connection to themselves.

Easier said than done? Probably. However, here are some ideas I’ve gathered that may help to do just this.

recycling for kids

Recycling for kids can be fun. Collect bits and bobs over a couple of weeks and then turn them out onto the floor and see what ideas everyone comes up with for reusing them. CC image courtesy of EvelynGiggles on Flickr.

Make it fun

This is especially important for the little ones.

  • Collect odd bits and bobs throughout the week and then on the weekend or on Friday evening get the whole family involved in being creative to see how the bits can be recycled into artwork or for making new things.
  • We have a craft drawer that interesting bits go into for future craft projects.
  • Finger-paint on the inside of cardboard boxes.
  • Load up toy trains and trucks with recyclables and drive them out to the curb on collection day.
  • Have a family challenge that if someone finds a recyclable item in the garbage – the offender has to pay a fee to the person who discovered the incorrectly disposed of material.
  • Here’s a fun rap about building a city out of recycled materials:

Many of the suggestions involve recycling things into arts and crafts for kids. However, as a practical mother I have to say that you can only have so many toilet roll dolls and bottle cap collages around. So, whenever I do craft projects with my son using recycled materials I plan to be able to reduce it back down into recyclable parts. For example, we made a collage with old cardboard, some bits of scrap cloth and some macaroni and lentils and I made a glue using just flour and water so that I could toss the whole thing in the compost without concern.

Make it real

If recycling just ends at the curb for kids, it may not seem very real. Beyond doing crafts, bring in some real-life applications of how recycling works.

  • Recycle paper at home to see how it works. Use scrap paper from around the house and incorporate your own flare such as leaves or glitter to make recycled paper at home.
  • See if your local recycling facility does public tours. There’s nothing like huge machines crushing and munching steel and aluminum cans like their butter to impress kids.
  • Help your kids organize a bottle drive for their school or for a group they belong to so that they can see that recycling can be profitable.
  • Help your children problem solve; if there’s something that’s needed for the home, work through to see if it can be made from used materials. We needed plant pots for our seedlings last spring and my son and I ended up making compostable pots out of the inside of toilet paper rolls. Now he’s got a big collection ready for next spring!
  • Instead of running to the store, make toys from recycled materials. I’ve seen some incredible play kitchens made from old entertainment centres. Doll houses are another candidate for using recycled materials. I think there are plans in the works at my house to build a go-kart out of recycled materials – I’ll let you know how that works out!

Make it relevant

This will become more important as kids get older and it isn’t always easy to do.  It also depends on what motivates your child. I’m certainly no expert at this and there are few materials on the web to help out with this one, but here are some thoughts.

  • Pocket money is often relevant to older children so if you can find a way to tie these things together you’ll have an impact. It could be fundraising through bottle or e-waste collection drives for an event or activity, or collecting litter that can be recycled for a deposit.  Who knows, your children might even come up with some great use for recycled items that’s marketable at craft fairs or online!
  • Use language that has meaning for them. My son loves ocean creatures. So, when I first told him about recycling plastic I mentioned that plastics that aren’t recycled properly can end up in the ocean and sea turtles mistake them for one of their favourite foods…jellyfish. You probably know where I’m going from there. The point is, the information has stuck with him because it was tied to something he’s truly interested in.
  • I had a friend in high school that had an eye for fashion and always seemed on the cutting edge of trends but definitely with her own individual flare. She seemed to have an endless wardrobe. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that she had a mom who was a fabulous seamstress and they would scour the second-hand stores for clothes looking mainly at quality of material and then bring them home to alter them into the latest trendy fashions. Brilliant! Tell your teenage daughter she can potentially double her wardrobe and offer to pay for a sewing course if you aren’t gifted that way yourself – see what happens!

Recycling for kids is an excellent activity to get them started on an environmentally-conscious path in life. It will likely be the one activity they continue to do through their self-involved teenage years, particularly if it is clear to them why they do it and how it affects them. So, start early and make it fun, real and relevant, and hopefully we will see future generations recycling more of their waste!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bret @ Green Global Travel December 17, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Cool story! Getting kids into recycling, composting, etc. at an early age is so important, since they’re the future stewards of the environment. My daughter loves finding new ways to reuse stuff, and is constantly amazed at the cool clothes we find at thrift stores (as opposed to the designer junk her friends buy). Hopefully the next generation will focus more on preservation than consumption.


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