10 Ideas For Teaching Environmental Responsibility To Active Learners


I am not an environmentalist.  Nope, I’m a plain, boring, suburban mom that drives a minivan and homeschools.  I don’t protest over pipelines, scrub oil-covered sea gulls, or keep a vermiculture farm (worm bin) under my kitchen sink.  I am an average American. I’m not sure if I should be proud of that or appalled by that, but it’s who I am at this point in my life.

I am also an environmentalists’ success story.  I am proof that the message got through: that active is better than passive, that each person can help change the world.  It’s not about everyone protesting things and volunteering, because that’s not possible for a lot of people.  It’s about making those small changes in each of our lives that will make a collectively great change in our environment.  I am not an environmentalist.  I am a Responsible-ist (is that even a word?)

Because the Engineer is gifted, he’s interested in a lot of complex things at a depth beyond what other kids his age are interested in.  We’ve covered the whole “we’re damaging our world” subject in multiple casual conversations throughout the year but I’ve avoided specific lesson plans about it because I’m not ready to deal with the anxiety this subject will induce.  In a way, this post is something of a multi-year lesson plan for me – verbalizing and structuring my thought process before we jump into the muck and the mess.

Here are 10 different ways I’ve come up with to help the Engineer learn about changing our world for the better.  No crafts or songs, just real change or actions.

1. Live it

This is the most important way, honestly.  We don’t make a big deal out of it.  We just do it.  Our trash service has single-stream recycling, so everything on the list goes into the bin.  Glass, metal, cardboard, paper, and plastic.  We fill the large trash can sized bin to the brim every week and only have a few trash bags in our actual trash can.  We donate clothes and household items to the local Salvation army – even things like electronics, because they sell scrap in bulk to recyclers.  We use canvas grocery bags: I prefer them over plastic bags because they’re so much sturdier.  We try to reject materialism, difficult to do with small children.  And, most importantly, we don’t buy cheap crap.

That sounds horribly elitist.  Substitute that with minimalist.

I mean, we don’t buy cheap toys that break in the first day.  I refuse to buy sawdust and glue furniture – I’ll take responsibly sourced pine over MDF or particle board any day.  We’ve discussed why we don’t buy flimsy toys with the kids and often have to tell them no, they can’t have that toy that they want because it’s not sturdy.  We often frame the “I want that!” demands from them with need versus want so that they understand it’s ok to want something, but that doesn’t mean they will get it.

Living like this has added bonuses of less clutter, less money spent on junk, and less storage headaches.  Note I said less, not eliminated.  We do have little kids, after all!

2. Watch videos that bring the issues to life

Sometimes reading about it or talking about it doesn’t have the impact that a video will have.  We’ve watched videos about recycling plants sorting items, a metal recycling facility that melts down the steel into bars for re-use, and a glass factory.  We’ve seen landfills in action, trash barges floating down the rivers, and the trash islands in the currents of the oceans.  We watch footage of wind farms and solar farms, and see how geo-thermal energy is harnessed.

Reality videos are a wonderful way to learn, but don’t forget videos like Wall-e.  It’s a great little love story with cute robots, but the underlying message is much sterner.  Wall-e’s job was to compact trash, and he built an entire city from the little cubes that emerged from his tiny compactor.  It’s an intentionally powerful message about materialism and consumerism cloaked in a fun children’s movie.

3. Field trips

Have you visited a landfill?  Most people haven’t, despite it being (mostly) open to the public.  I vividly remember my trips to the landfill as a child.  We didn’t have trash service willing to come down the gravel road we lived on, so my parents recycled with a vengeance: the more we sorted, the less we had to burn.  Every month we would load the bins in the pickup truck and make the trip to the landfill to dump them in the huge dumpsters allocated for each type.

To the child that I was, the vast mountains of trash and the giant machines moving it around were awe-inspiring.  It made an impact.  I looked at the trash accumulated from our small community and extrapolated it to the entire country.  I worried that soon we would all be living on a giant pile of trash.  I decided that everyone was being irresponsible, and that I would do what I could to limit those vast mountains by my choices.

I also vividly remember the gashes across the mountains that I saw on some of our family trips.  When I first encountered clear-cutting, my instinctive reaction was horror.  There had to be a better way!  And there was.  We passed through tree farms with strictly lined up pine trees like some enormous army at rest.  I remember staring out the window and wondering why we didn’t have more farms like that: farms that could be harvested easily without ruining the landscape.

Some of my field trip ideas for this include the landfill, a recycling center, a working mine, and a tree farm.  Anything related to nature works too, like nature walks, community clean-ups, and so on.

4. Start a compost heap

I really want to do this, but at this point I can’t (thank you very much HOA!)  I want to save our produce scraps and turn them into black gold: compost.  I want the kids to learn how important bacteria and scavengers are to the ecosystem.  I want them to feel proud that we’re not wasting a resource.  I’m planning to start a worm farm next summer, and I’ll include some compost in there so that they can see how important worms are to the entire process.

At some point, I want to do an experiment with a few plants: one in plain dirt, one in compost.  Which one does better?

5. Do a scavenger hunt

Do a scavenger hunt for recycled packaging in your pantry.  Bonus points if you find biodegradable plastic.  For bigger kids, do a scavenger hunt in the grocery store.  Take points away if you find plastic that can’t be recycled.

6. Take a Class

A lot of our local nature centers offer classes for homeschoolers.  They range from classes about watersheds, animals, or plants, and are often quite in-depth.  Most of the parks around our area offer ranger-led programs as well – some more specific than others.  Reading about something pales to getting out there and learning with the experts.

7. Enter a student design contest

When I was a kid, there was a huge oil spill that caused a major environmental impact.  After the spill and the clean-up, the shipping company had a contest for school-aged children to design a new oil-tanker design to prevent more spills.  It was a pure PR move that probably didn’t result in any major changes, but it was a huge deal for a kid who felt helpless in the face of tragedy.  I’m sure my design wasn’t incredibly innovative, but I felt like I was doing something.

There are a lot of similar contests out there for students, and the EPA keeps a special page on their website just for them.   Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Programs has a 2017 contest going on now, and you can see the results from previous contests on their website as well.

8. Become a detective

Incorporate citizen reporting options into your schooling.  Track invasive species in your area with the resources from the Department of Agriculture website  and report them to the proper authorities in your state.  Help track water quality with the Global Water Sampling Project and join students from across the world in a collaborative data gathering project.  So many math and science option in this idea!

9. Design a solution

Read about 19-year-old Boyan Slat’s ingenious solution to garbage patches in the ocean and follow his implementation as they test the design.  Slat chose to focus on ocean pollution because he was intimately familiar with it.  Have your kid pick a problem that they’re familiar with and design a solution.  Go beyond paper and test it with a working model if possible.

10. Get out there

There’s no point in trying to get your kid excited about cleaning up the messes they’ll inherit unless they’re motivated.  If you want them to value nature, then you need to allocate time to spend in nature.  If it’s something they only read about or see from a distance it’s not personal.  They need to understand what water pollution looks and feels like.  They need to see first-hand the struggles of an endangered species.  They need to see the impact of invasive species with their own eyes or they just won’t care.  It’s not visceral until it affects you, so make sure they’re familiar with their own environment.


I know this list sounds really heavy for a 5-year-old.  That’s ok.  Some of these ideas I’ll shelve until he’s a little older.

I walk such a fine line with the Engineer.  Giving him answers to his questions raises his anxiety.  Gifted kids have a higher percentage of depression, and I don’t want to trigger that with too much reality.  I’m always careful to pair negative and positive where I can.  Sure, the oceans have patches of horrible trash, but Boyan Slat has a plan.  Yes, landfills are horrible eyesores on our planet, but did you know they’re producing biodegradable diapers now?

There is hope.  Even in all the mess we’ve made, there’s still hope.




  1. I’m pinning this for later, because I love how you have mapped out a plan. I am not looking forward to delving more deeply into these topics with Squishy. So far we have just focused on the “leave no trace” moot and started a compost bin.


    • It’s a hard topic for kids, isn’t it? I’m glad my plan can help – I tend to map out things a lot. We might not follow the map, but at least I have a general idea lol!


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