kids_recyclingTonight, after you’ve forced open your child’s bedroom door despite the giant pile of stuffed animals behind it … After you’ve somehow managed to tiptoe through a minefield of toys, books and discarded dirty laundry without breaking your neck … And after you’ve leaned over and kissed your adorable little angel’s crusty, crumb-covered face goodnight, consider this:

Your child – who is quite possibly the messiest human being you know – is going to clean up our entire planet.

That’s right. The whole darn thing. He’s going to have to.

That’s because he’s inheriting a world with limited natural resources and a growing population. So for our species to keep surviving (and thriving) well into the future, our kids’ generation will have to make caring for the environment a priority. Not just a once-a-year-because-it’s-Earth-Day kind of priority, either. We’re talking about an every day, every decision they make kind of a thing.

Here’s what we parents can do today to help make that happen:

Get your kid’s mind working

Kids can understand much more at much earlier ages than we often give them credit for. This includes complex concepts like climate change, endangered species and overflowing landfills that may motivate them to adopt Earth-friendly behavior.

So start talking with your preschool-aged children about why taking care of the planet is such a good idea. Even if your initial explanations go over their heads, the more you converse with your kids, the more they’ll pick up. Although you may feel tempted to make the material more child friendly by referring to “Mean Mr. Fossil Fuel” or telling stories about how trees “magically” make pollution disappear, research shows those inaccurately simplified techniques are not your best bet. Instead, try some of these more effective methods for teaching science concepts to kids:

  • Using Analogies: Wasting the Earth’s resources too quickly is like spending all your piggy bank money before allowance day.
  • Outlining Causal Relationships: If you throw trash down a storm drain, it can make ocean animals sick.
  • Defining New Vocabulary Terms: Like “biodegradable,” or “renewable energy.”
  • Making Connections to Prior Knowledge: Just like plants use sunlight to make food, solar panels use it to make electricity.

But don’t let these conversations turn into one-sided lectures. Encourage your children to participate and form their own opinions by asking them to weigh in on topics like which environmentally friendly behaviors your family should practice. Research shows that when kids engage in back-and-forth dialogue about civic-related matters, they develop a much stronger and longer-lasting commitment to the cause.

Get your kid’s hands dirty

If you want to show your children that taking care of the planet is an important thing to do, then you’d better get out there and do it with them!

Fortunately, it should be easy for your family to get involved with environmental efforts on the community level. Cities, neighborhoods, churches and schools frequently hold events like beautification days and recycling drives that can show your child how important the environment is to everyone around you. Studies at Mills College and the University of Chicago have shown kids are motivated to help out when they see that their community cares enough to get involved.

In the PBS KIDS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Daniel learns about recycling when his neighbors work together to clean up the park. If your child is still learning about recycling, you can watch Daniel’s video or read a story with Daniel before you head out to help in your community. For more practice, your child can even play a game with The Cat in the Hat to learn which items can be recycled and which will compost back into nature.

For an even stronger dose of positive peer pressure, get your kids’ friends to go green with you. The more encouragement your child gets from the most sources possible, the more likely she will be to keep up her planet-saving work. And by the time your child is a teen, her biggest influence in many ways will be her peers. So use the influence you enjoy now to set your child’s peer group off in the right direction. One idea for doing this: plan a planet-friendly picnic where everyone brings their own reusable plates and silverware – and the kids get to make some fun recycled art!

Get your kid’s heart into it

Helping your child understand environmental issues and act on them during special occasions is great. But for eco-friendly behavior to truly become second nature to our kids, it helps if it is also habitual, rewarding or even fun. Here are some ideas for accomplishing just that:

  • Recycling: Cut bottle, can and paper slot shapes into your bin lids to make sorting recyclables a fun family game. You can even sing a song while you sort.  And if you take your collected items to a recycling center, consider sharing the redemption money with your kids for an added incentive.
  • Transportation: Look for chances to reduce emissions (and your stress levels) by taking car-free trips whenever you can. Biking, walking and riding public transportation can give your family some exercise and make traveling a lot more fun, too. City dwellers should find this easy, but even if you live out in the suburbs, we bet you have a park, restaurant or friend’s house within pedaling distance.
  • Reducing Waste: Help your kids look forward to saving electricity by having one fun candlelight dinner every week. Or encourage them to use less water by timing who can take the fastest shower (while still coming out smelling clean, of course)!

Their bedrooms may always be a mess. But if you set your kids up with some planet-healthy habits now, they’ll be ready to clean the Earth for years to come!

Have your own tips for motivating kids to clean up the environment? Share them in the comments now!


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