Teaching Kids to Recycle

All parents want to leave the world a better place for their children. While it sometimes feels like we don’t have much control over what happens down the line, one of the best ways to ensure that there will be a healthy planet for future generations is to teach little ones about recycling now so that they grow up with an awareness about waste and an appreciation for preserving resources.

The earlier good habits are ingrained, the easier it is to incorporate them into your daily life. Here are some activities that will help kids understand what recycling is and how they can be part of it.

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1. Collect litter in the park

Visit a park or beach, where you can point out the trash on the ground. Explain how this can affect wildlife like birds, which may eat the garbage and get sick. Bring some bags and pairs of gloves to help clean it up.

2. Make recycling bins

Sorting out recyclables is a surprisingly fun activity for young kids. Let them decorate bins with pictures of what should go in each one (paper, plastic, cans, etc. — depending on how the recycling is sorted in your area) and then give them some items to practice sorting. Explain how it’s important to put everything in the right bin so that it can all be processed easily once it gets to the recycling facility.

3. Read bedtime stories

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, a classic, is a great way to give kids an early entrée into the world of environmentalism. The Little Green Books from Simon & Schuster are also fun reads and include titles like The Adventures of an Aluminum Can, I Can Save the Ocean!, and The Polar Bears’ Home.

4. Explore the rooms of your house

When recycling, we often mainly focus on the kitchen, but there are things you can recycle and reuse all over your home. Have kids walk into a specific room and point out what they think can be recycled — if you’re not sure, research it together. Whether it’s stuffed animals in a bedroom, paint in a garage, or plastic packaging in the kitchen, there are plenty of items that don’t have to be destined for the landfill. Go over how items can be reused or upcycled, too — old toys can be donated to charities, pants that are outgrown can turn into shorts, and mismatched board game pieces can become jewelry. This will help kids get in the habit of thinking about where their outgrown items can find a new home once they’re done with them.

5. Run a recycling relay

In a grassy area, set up a row of recycling bins, each which accept something different. Then split a group of kids (elementary school age works well for this game) into teams and have them take turns running to the bins, depositing an item in the correct container, then racing back and tagging a teammate, who then picks up an item and runs to the bins. The first team to correctly recycle all their items wins. To add an extra challenge, include some items that can’t be recycled so that kids can learn what has to go in the trash. You may want to add a composting bucket as well.

Originally published on October 18, 2013, this article was updated in October 2020.

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