Sustainability can be a hard concept for adults to grasp, let alone children. The talks I have with my two young children about our "green lifestyle" take time and patience, but they are worth the effort. Here are a few of the most effective strategies I've found for incorporating eco-friendly practices into our family routine. I suggest focusing on one new habit at a time and gradually building from there. For my family, sustainability is a continual conversation—but it's one of the most important ones we can have.
1. Show your kids the "why" behind recycling.
If you've always had a recycling system in your household, it can be difficult for kids to understand how putting a soda can in the recycling bin instead of the trash bin makes a difference in your community and the world at large. Visit a local recycling center if possible, so your kids can see where recycled things go. You can also talk to them about what happens when people don’t recycle plastic and how damaging that can be for the environment. The next time you go to the grocery store, show them how to use reusable bags instead of plastic ones, or how to identify packaging that is recyclable. I teach my girls to recycle as we go, and we drop bottles off at the collection site together—they love throwing them in.
2. Make a game of conserving water.
The younger the child, the harder it can be to understand that water is, in fact, a limited resource. According to the EPA, the average family of four goes through 400 gallons of water a day. Though this number can be hard for children to visualize, comparing it to terms they can relate to on a daily basis can help. Try showing them how much water 1 gallon holds and telling them that one bath uses up to 70 of them! I've found that framing water conservation as a challenge makes it more fun and interesting. For instance, I’ve timed my kids' showers, and now they try to beat their personal record for the shortest shower each time. Additionally, talking about areas that are running out of water like Cape Town and the central valley of California may be too much for younger children, but it can resonate with older ones.
3. Lower your bill together.
Look at your utility bills together. This will help demonstrate how much energy costs your family and its impact on the world at large. Talk about things you would rather do with the money you spend on it. Then take steps to reduce your energy use and see how much you save on the next month's bill. Consider donating the money you save in a year to a worthy cause that your child is excited about.
The best way to make all these lessons stick is to teach by example.
4. Plan and plant a garden together.
We planted our family garden three years ago, and we still get so much joy out of it. Planting together shows children where food comes from, encourages healthier diets, and fosters responsibility. Each year, my girls decide what we’re going to plant, and we harvest together all summer long.
If you don't have room for a sprawling outdoor garden, try more compact options like succession planting, container gardening, raised planter boxes, or go for an indoor windowsill garden. You can also take the kids down to the farmers market or even visit a local farm.
5. Start composting.
My kids like getting their hands (and pretty much everything else) dirty, so this one wasn’t a hard sell. If you have a garden, you can make your own compost to show kids the full life cycle of organic matter. Some parents may shy away from composting because, at first glance, it can seem complicated. However, there are several options and informative beginners’ guides to help you and your child build the right composting system for your needs.
6. Teach your kids to make things last.
I encourage my kids to live by the adage, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." Whether it’s old clothes or old toys, try making a habit of going through a child’s things with them every so often to find items they can donate. You can even organize a clothing exchange in your neighborhood with other families; kids grow out of their clothes much more often than they wear them out. We hand their clothes down to a family with younger girls and have been known to put funky and fashionable patches on worn bluejeans to give them a fun new look.
You can also create donation piles for local organizations to help your children learn about how their gently used items can help the community. You can even show them how large companies like Patagonia encourage people to make the most out of what they have before buying new clothing. Teaching kids that their belongings are not disposable can help them reduce, reuse, and recycle from a young age.
Like most things in parenting, the best way to make these lessons stick is to teach by example. Kids learn by watching you. And it’s the little actions they see you do every day that will help make the message of sustainability stick around.
Read these 6 books at bedtime to inspire your kids to become little environmentalists in training.
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