Want to raise a kid who cares about the environment? Here are five small things you can do at home to encourage your kid to grow up making an environmental difference. 

By Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D.
October 14, 2020
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Earlier this year, researchers from Stanford University surveyed a sampling of Americans to get an understanding of our national attitudes toward climate change. Let's just say, most of us are believers. Eighty-one percent of Americans believe that the Earth has been warming over the past 100 years, and 82 percent believe human activity is at least partially responsible for global warming. (Although, the idea of "believing" in climate change is a mystery to me. It's not as if we say things like "I believe in gravity.")

So, now that most of us are on the same page … what do we do about it? We know that climate change puts our safety at risk, not to mention our children's futures. But how can we make a difference? Little ol' us?

The biggest changes need to happen at higher levels, beginning with government and industry. But we parents can play a role. Not only can we contribute our own eco-conscious attitudes to society at large, but we can also raise kids who care about the Earth and our place in it. 

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You don't have to sit down with your kids to lecture them about climate change. Making some lifestyle changes, involving your kids in the process, and letting them join in being good environmental stewards is a meaningful contribution. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Hold a Family Recycling Workshop

OK, let's face it—recycling can be confusing. What goes in the bin? What can't be recycled? Lids or no lids? Even adults sometimes struggle to understand the nuances. But according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we humans produce 4.40 pounds of waste per person per day. That's more than 1,600 pounds per year. (That's about as heavy as five pandas ... if you count things in pandas.) Something's got to give.

Time to get into the trenches, eco-warriors! Any municipality with a recycling program should have a website with information about what can and can't be recycled, and how you should handle recyclable materials. It's time to dig in, take notes, and prepare yourself to teach your family the basics. Or, better yet, if your kids are old enough, enlist them to find the website and take notes so they can teach the rest of the family the recycling ropes. 

Multiple kids? Make someone the "Recycling Monitor" for a month, and rotate family members so that everyone gets a chance to be in charge. You'll show your kids that not only is recycling important, but it's also everyone's responsibility.

Start a "Lights Off" Campaign

Lighting has gotten a lot more efficient over the years. Incandescent bulbs, which were once the norm, burned a lot of energy back in the day when our parents would pace through the house shutting off lights while muttering something about not working for the darn eclectic company. 

But just because we're using fluorescent and LED lighting these days doesn't mean we shouldn't be conscious about our energy consumption. And encouraging your kids to be aware of their energy usage can help them be responsible energy consumers in the future. 

The U.S. Department of Energy offers pointers for helping you determine how much energy is consumed (or saved) by the lights you use

Get your kids in the habit of shutting things off in general. That includes computers they're not using, televisions, and anything else consuming energy.

Get Into Worm Composting

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, we humans waste 30 percent of our food globally, and that wasted food accounts for 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, the gasses responsible for climate change.

What's vermicomposting? It's a type of composting that uses worms to turn organic waste scraps into compost instead of sending those scraps to landfills. And what kid doesn't love a good wiggly worm? (OK, there are a few such kids, but touching worms is not strictly essential to vermiculture.) 

There are a bajillion videos, online resources, and products (including worms for sale) to help your family get started in worm composting. The National Insitute of Environmental Health Sciences offers a handy guide aimed at families and kids. 

Involve Your Kids in Food Shopping

Enlist your kids' help in planning your meals and making a shopping list so you can get everything you need for the week in one trip. Unless you have a fully electric car or you walk or ride a bike (in which case, go you!), you'll consume less gas. And when you're not in a hurry, you'll be able to choose products more carefully. 

Remember what I said about all that plastic we waste? Convenience foods (like that rotisserie chicken and the various sides you had to pick up because, "You just can't even," and dinner's not gonna make itself) often come in plastic containers. Ditto a lot of the other products we buy at the store. Ask your kids for help coming up with your shopping list, and encourage them to choose fresh foods—like fruits, veggies, meats, and seafood—over packaged items. 

If someone suggests, say, spaghetti and marinara sauce, ask your kids whether spaghetti comes in a package. (Yep, that pasta comes in a box.) And what about the sauce? (That's in a glass or plastic jar.) Then ask them to consider whether those packages are recyclable. (Yes, you can recycle a box! And usually, you can recycle a jar, but not always the lids.) 

Dig Into Some Citizen Science

Kids tend to be naturally fascinated by science. Use that! 

If your child is intrigued by weather and the atmosphere (or you want to encourage them to be), NASA has a program called the GLOBE Cloud Observation Project. And it's just what it sounds like—kid citizen scientists observe the clouds and report their findings to NASA. The data is used to help scientists understand how clouds affect the Earth's climate. And, because our reports match up with satellite overpass times, it helps NASA validate their instrument functionality. Pretty cool!

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in astronomy and astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College. She hosts the Everyday Einstein podcast on Quick and Dirty Tips. 

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