Sustainability for Kids: How to Teach This Important Topic

sustainability for kids stacey freeman posh in progress 2
I bet your kids are talking about recycling in school today. I bet they made some earth-shaped crafts, or something similar. I’m sure their teachers talked to them about the importance of caring for our planet. All of that is great, and a worthy thing to teach kids. But have you ever thought about sustainability in your daily life or how to teach kids about sustainability? This article is meant as a way for you to introduce you to sustainability for kids.

Since today is Earth Day, I figured it is about time that I share more about my experience and thoughts on sustainability.  For three years, I actually traveled the world teaching kids and museum educators about sustainability.  I worked for the Global Institute of Sustainability at ASU and I got to travel to museums across the world, met a lot of interesting people, and taught museum professionals how to educate other people about sustainability.

Honestly, this was probably my favorite job in my life. It was so meaningful to me because it literally changed my worldview. I think a lot more about being a good steward of the planet and how to care for the people who live on it. I traveled to four continents and met the most amazing people from over 30 countries and all 50 states. I’ve seen many sustainability challenges that are hard to envision from a U.S. context (my trip to South Africa was especially eye-opening). Being able to meet so many interesting people, experience so many new places, and think about how we can ensure our planet is healthy for generations to come was very rewarding.

What is a Sustainability Definition for Kids?

sustainability for kids stacey freeman posh in progress
Before I started that job, I knew very little about sustainability. I cared about nature, but beyond recycling and using a reusable water bottle, I wasn’t very sustainable myself. So what is sustainability? Well, it’s more than just recycling or taking care of our planet. It’s also about promoting social justice, making sure our environment is protected and resilient, and ensuring economic prosperity.

In my old job, we used to talk about the three pillars of sustainability. The easy way to remember it is – people, planet, profit. By profit we mean economy. Sustainability is a systemic approach considering not only environmental resilience, economic prosperity, and the quality of life for humans. Environmentalism is solely focused on the environment and does not consider the social and economic factors and how they affect the earth. Sustainability is a much more holistic way to approach taking care of our planet.

How to Teach Kids About Sustainability

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I totally understand why schools focus on teaching kids about recycling as the main way they can help the planet. Even when I was a kid, they touted reduce, reuse, and recycle. And that adage is still super important. Yet, there is so much more that kids can start to learn about sustainability at a young age. One of the main tenants of sustainability is social justice and equity for all people. So beyond just thinking about the planet, it’s also about thinking about how we can ensure all people have access to resources and jobs so they can live a good quality of life. 

Sustainability influences every aspect of your daily life. It is the entire system in which we live and work. Every decision we make somehow influences sustainability. Although thinking about issues like climate change can be really overwhelming, I like to approach sustainability by thinking about the everyday actions we take and how they positively or negatively influence the planet. It is the little things that add up over time. An example is plastic use. The first plastic waste was found in the oceans in the 1960s. Prior to that, we didn’t use a lot of plastic, so there was not an issue. Over the last 60 years, plastic waste has become an increasing issue, especially in our oceans. A small change you can make in your house is not buying any plastic bottles. Even if you recycle them, it is better not to use them at all. This is just one small example, but there are so many more.

Teaching Sustainability in Schools

My dear friend Elizabeth contributed to this article about some ways that kids could learn about sustainability at school. I think it provides some super interesting examples of major sustainability challenges that kids could learn about and relate to. One of the biggest issues with sustainability, in my opinion, is that it feels so large.  It feels sometimes insurmountable. Or sometimes, it feels like you can’t really see or feel it (climate change for example). So, giving kids real-world examples they can understand and consider in their daily lives is a great approach to teaching kids about sustainability.

Sustainability Activities for Kids

If you’re looking for neat activities, these are the activities that we created when I worked at ASU. Future Builder is our personal favorite because it teaches the three pillars of sustainability – society, economy, and environment – and helps kids start to learn about tradeoffs associated with sustainability decision-making. Depending on what they choose, they could benefit the environment, people, or the economy. 

I thought this article had some good suggestions of things you can do to teach kids about sustainability. There are so many activities beyond using recycled materials to make art. I love that they talk about composting, supporting local farms, making better cleaning products at home, and talking about water pollution, for example. You can also talk to your kids about food waste, reasons that shopping at thrift stores is a good idea, etc. Whenever possible, point out little ways your purchasing decisions impact the planet. They will start to consider how their daily actions do the same. Here is an article about 12 things you can do in your daily life to be more sustainable.

Other Things You Can Do and Consider

I’ve written a few other stories about sustainability. I know that a topic like sustainability can be quite overwhelming. If you’re interested in learning more about different aspects of living a more sustainable life, here are some other stories I’ve written. 

How to Make Your Home More Eco Friendly 

Where Your Food Comes From 

Electric Vehicle Tax Credit

Eco-Friendly Clothes 

By no means is this story a comprehensive resource for sustainability for kids or how you can live a sustainable life. It’s such a large topic, this is just a starting point. However, I hope this story has you thinking a bit more about sustainability in your life and some things you can do to talk to your kids about sustainability. If you have questions, please leave them for me! If I don’t know the answers, I still have access to Ph.D. researchers and scientists who do.

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