Even very young kids can learn about sustainability

How many parents have been schooled by their toddler about the correct bin to discard recyclables in? Or reprimanded by their tween about leaving a light on? Kids are soaking up messages about the environmental issues we are facing, and not only do they inherently care about things like nature and wildlife, but they’re also very accustomed to following rules. So, if you tell a child that plastic goes in one bin and paper in another, they are generally happy to comply. But how many of those young kids truly understand why we need to think and act in responsible, sustainable ways?

Sustainability is a complex topic, which is precisely why we need some simplified ways to explain it to children (or maybe to ourselves! Shhh…we won’t tell).

A simplified definition

Sustainability means being able to have what we need while making sure future generations can still have what they need.

Ask your child to imagine a forest of trees. If we cut down all the trees to make houses and furniture and didn’t plant any more, what would happen? Not only would we eliminate forests (which would be terrible for our planet and wildlife) but people in the future wouldn’t be able to use trees for the things they need.

We also shouldn’t cut down forests to make room for crops we think we need (such as palm oil). This is called deforestation. Sometimes we need to keep things as natural as possible to maintain the correct balance for all the living organisms on earth because we need each other to survive. 

This balance of resources is called sustainability. So, besides trees, what are other resources we use?

Energy – Why do we need to turn off the lights?

Most of our electricity comes from fossil fuels, which are plant and animal remains found in the earth’s crust that is burned to create energy. Not only does the burning cause terrible pollution, but they took a long time to create (millions of years!) and will eventually run out. Thankfully, people are figuring out how to create sustainable energy from sunshine (solar), wind (turbine), moving water (hydro and tidal), heat from the earth (geothermal) and even from certain types of plants (biomass). But until those methods are more mainstream, we need to do our part by using less of the resources that will run out.

Tip: Ask your child if they can go around the house and look for any wasteful energy. Talk about the advantages of fluorescent or LED bulbs. Take note of the ones that need to be changed. Are there any electrical devices not being used that could be unplugged?

Water – We have plenty of that forever, right?

We all need water to survive. Decreasing rainfall and rising populations could cause water shortages in any part of the world. Some areas are more vulnerable to shortages than others, but even in the UK, The Environmental Agency has said that if we don’t find ways to increase our water supply, reduce demand and cut down on waste, there may be serious water shortages by 2050.

Tip: Ask kids to turn off the tap unless their hands or a cup are directly under it.

Plastic – If it’s so bad, why are so many things made of it?

When plastic was invented (in the early 1900s) it was thought to be an incredible new material. It is durable, safe, lightweight, washable, hardwearing and long-lasting…very, very long-lasting. And therein lies the problem. It can take up to 500 years for plastic to decompose, which is not sustainable unless you think it’s fair for future generations to live on a planet covered in rubbish. Thankfully, in many parts of the world, a lot of plastic can be recycled, but it’s still causing a lot of damage to the planet and to wildlife. Clever people are creating alternative materials we can use instead. But the best thing to do is to eliminate your family’s use of single-use plastic and use other reusable products. 

Tip: Sadly, toys are a huge part of the plastic problem. Consider toys made from more sustainable materials. Don’t throw away old toys, take them to a charity shop or give them to a friend. Use Youtube to teach you how to fix broken toys!

Waste – Where does all the rubbish go?

Regardless of whether it’s made of plastic or not, children need to realise that rubbish doesn’t magically disappear. Landfills create harmful greenhouse gases, and they can be expensive, unsightly, unhygienic and take up space. Recycling and finding other uses for old things is great, but do we really need so much stuff in the first place? Kids are living in a world of instant gratification, where something can be ordered on the internet and arrive the same day. We need to get in the habit of asking: Do we really need it? Could we borrow it? Could we make it? Could we find it second-hand? How long will we use it? 

Tip: Travel is a wonderful way to introduce kids to communities that survive and thrive with less consumerism.

Conclusion

We know this only scratches the surface. There are many great books and other resources that can help introduce this subject to kids. Remember to focus on solutions and introduce sustainability in a positive way. Focusing on the problems and showing disturbing images is not the best approach. Children are optimistic and clever, often coming up with solutions that adults are incapable of. Let their imaginations run wild! We need all the innovation we can get!