Reduce, reuse, recycle – and get kids excited about doing it! This Earth Day, focus on conservation and recognizing the challenges of our planet. These teacher-tested, student-approved activities are a great place to start!
Earth Day Lessons and Activities
1. Candy Conservation
Idea by Katie, a 1st Grade Teacher, in Chalmette, LA.
To help children understand that natural resources are limited, I explain that energy eventually will run out and we need to use what we have wisely. To demonstrate this concept, I buy a big bag of M&M candies and bring them to the class on Monday. Every time we leave the room or use the sink we take some candies. We always run low by Wednesday. That’s when students start coming up with a plan to conserve or limit the amount that each child may take. It never fails that by the end of the demonstration, someone wants to recycle his or her old Valentine candy to replenish the jar.
2. Be a Recycle Rep
Idea by Maureen, a 1st Grade Teacher, from Peace River, Alberta, Canada.
Our whole school is committed to recycling. My students know how to “swish and squish” their milk cartons; they put their fruit peelings/cores into our compost bin; they put their juice boxes into the refundable recycle bin; they put their plastics (that they rinse out themselves) into the plastics bin. Each classroom has a “recycle rep” responsible for taking their classrooms bucket/bag of paper recycles to the nearby bins. Older students in our school take turns hauling out the cardboard to our own cardboard dumpster.
3. Lead By Example
Idea by Bea, a K-3 EBD Teacher, in Dade, FL.
The best way to teach children to care for the Earth is by example. I make a point of letting the kids know that we all need to do our part, no matter how small, to conserve energy. I make a habit of turning off the lights every time we leave the classroom and I also make sure both doors to my classroom are fully shut so that no a/c or heat escapes. We keep the temperature at a constant 70 degrees. I send home a list of tips for having students conserve energy at home and invite parents to sign and return the papers when their children participate. In class, I provide treats for students who return the signed papers. I also provide time for students to draw pictures and write about how proud it makes them feel to be doing their part.
4. Students to the Rescue
Idea by Jodi, a 5th/6th Grade Special Education Teacher, in Sanford, ME.
To begin our Planet Protection environmental awareness unit, we study Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1971). To build an understanding of cause and effect in relation to environmental issues, I hold a discussion in which I have my students answer literal and inferential comprehension questions based on the book. We analyze the impact of the book’s characters on the environment and compare it to the impact we humans have on our environment.
We also develop an environmental impact plan for conservation and waste management in our own school/ community and present this plan to our school administration. My students’ plan will address the short and long term consequences (positive and negative) of our proposed actions on local wildlife and our beautiful Earth. We will complete our unit by displaying an Earth Day Pledge Tree in our hallway. Each leaf on the tree will be designed by a student and will be printed with that student’s pledge to contribute to taking care of the Earth. (The pledge may or may not relate to our waste management plans. For example, I’ll pledge to turn off the water when I brush my teeth.) We also provide blank leaves to encourage other classes or school visitors to record and post their own pledges.
5. Create a Podcast
Idea by April, a 2nd-6th Grade Teacher, in Skiatook, OK.
To spark interest in ecology, I made a podcast of a science experiment. The theme of my podcast was “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” The podcast begins with me drinking the last drop of a canned beverage. I tell students that I can’t crush the can because I hurt my foot, so I want to show them how to crush the can a different way.
I then boil some water in the bottom of the can. After 30 seconds of boiling I carefully remove the can and quickly turn it upside down in a bowl of ice water. The can crushes itself in seconds. I explain that while the water was boiling in the can it was pushing all the air out with the water vapor. I also add that when I cooled the can quickly, the air pressure around the can crushed the can. The process is loud and attention grabbing. I use this moment to remind students that we always “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle!” My kids remembered the concepts presented in the podcast and I had fun making it.
6. Design a Preservation Park
Idea by Katie, a 3rd Grade Teacher, from McLean, VA.
To help kids learn about the importance of energy conservation, I use a unit from Project Clarion (William & Mary College, School of Education) called “Dig It.” The unit helps kids learn about the difference between renewable and nonrenewable energy resources. It is a problem-based learning unit in which the kids are called to action as environmental scientists to solve the problems being experienced in a place called Queen Anne’s Island where the water is polluted, the farmland is eroding, and the air is becoming difficult to breathe. It all culminates with a project in which the kids work in pairs to design a “Preservation Park” that uses environmentally friendly ways of using and conserving energy. I put my own spin on the experience by letting the kids choose to create either a 3-D model of their park, draw a detailed picture of it on a poster, or create a PowerPoint presentation. They always include solar panels, wind turbines, and/or hydropower in their designs. Their final products always impress me.
7. Focus on Water
Idea by Rachna, a 4th Grade Teacher, in Arlington, VA.
To teach my students about how to conserve and protect water, I first activate their prior knowledge on the subject. Students often have specific, concrete ideas for water conservation (e.g., turning off the water while brushing their teeth, taking shorter showers, and running the washing machine with full loads of laundry, etc.). We brainstorm a class list of these ideas. Then I show students the “Conservation: Natural Resources” video from Brain Pop Jr. to help them visualize why water is a precious resource. This short video also shows how natural resources can be protected. Next, I have students create colorful water conservation flyers with school-specific tips for conserving water in school; we post these near water fountains and bathrooms. That way, other students can use the tips listed, and my students are positively influencing others with their knowledge. I also have students write letters to others (family members, friends, peers, etc.) to persuade them to protect and preserve water. I encourage students to include helpful water conservation tips in their letters so that recipients will be encouraged to begin positive water preservation practices today.
8. Use Video
Idea by Meaghan, a 9-12th Grade Teacher, from Montague, PEI, Canada.
One of my favorite current event topics to incorporate into my oceanography and chemistry classes is a study of Ocean Acidification that results in climate change. I generally start with some general discussion around climate change. I have students make a list of what they think might happen if temperatures increase and then, to help provide some background information on climate change, I show them the National Geographic video, “Six Degrees Could Change the World.” I also give each student a slip of paper labeled with the name of a marine creature. At the end of the lesson, the students have the opportunity to find out what happened to their organism. For example, coral may have been bleached and died. I also like to use “Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification.” This is a National Resource Defense Council video (21:33) and is available for you to stream for free at YouTube. I always have students calculate their personal carbon footprint. While not specifically related to climate change, I have also read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1971) to spark discussions of endangered species.
9. Start with a Book
Idea by Mary, a 2nd Grade Teacher, in Benton, AR.
This year, after we read the classic book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1971), I’ll have students read the new book, How to Help the Earth by the Lorax by Tish Rabe (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012). I’ll have my students discuss how they can impact the earth in a positive way at home and at school. My class will also lead a recycling drive for soda cans at school, and use the funds to provide more books for the library.
10. Used Recycled Materials
Idea by Ann, 2nd Grade Teacher, Brunswick, GA
During the summer I love to hit the yard sales for the old board games. They’re a great tool for teaching skills related to game playing as well as for offering practice in critical and creative thinking abilities. In addition, many of the games can be differentiated to match learning standards. One of my students’ favorites is the classic, “Chutes and Ladders” game board. I use this game to offer practice with addition and subtraction. When players move up a ladder they must add the number where they began to the number they ended on to determine how many spaces they advanced. When sliding down a chute, players must subtract to see how many spaces they regressed. This math adaptation is a major hit during center time and beyond.
11. Build Global Awareness
Idea by Patrice, a 3rd Grade Teacher, in New Milford, CT.
To begin a unit on water awareness, I have students toss an inflatable globe to one another. After each catch, we notice whether our thumbs grasped the land or the water; we tally each catch accordingly. (Water always wins because it covers more surface area than land.) We then discuss how most of the earth is covered with water but that most of that water is salt water, and therefore, is undrinkable. This then leads students to conclude that our fresh water supply is very valuable. From there, we brainstorm ideas to help conserve our water supply.
12. Use Children’s Books
Idea by Tammy, a 1st Grade Teacher, in Lincoln Park, MI.
As part of my effort to raise student awareness about the importance of caring for the Earth, I share classic books with an environmental message. I include titles, such as The Wump World by Bill Peet, (Sandpiper, 1981), The Berenstain Bears Don’t Pollute (Anymore) (Perfection Learning, 1993), and The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1971). After reading from The Lorax about how the last Truffula (seed) tree is given to Athe child to care for, I always present a small sapling to each of my students to take home and care for. In addition, I share a copy of the illustrated children’s book, What a Wonderful World by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele (Jean Karl Books, 1995). The book includes lyrics to the great Louie Armstrong classic. I play a recording of the song while showing the book. My students love singing the lyrics along with the recording.
13. Emphasize What They Can Do
Idea by Ruby, a 1st Grade Teacher, in Hinesville, GA.
I make certain my little first graders realize they can still make a big difference in protecting our environment. I always have one student helper responsible for turning out the classroom lights when we leave the room. Another student helper shuts down the classroom computers before we leave for the day. We discuss how we can turn off the faucet each time we brush our teeth. We have a recycle bin in our classroom that the students love to use. They even look out on the playground for trash they can bring in to place in our recycle bin or the trashcan. They understand very quickly that they play a huge role in helping our planet flourish.
14. Make Every Day Matter
Idea by Sofia, a 3rd Grade Teacher, from Riverside, CA.
I make a habit of incorporating ecological practices into the way I plan my classroom management strategies. I include practices aimed at energy conservation as well as waste reduction and present these as part of our daily routine. We only turn on one set of lights to use through the day. We use both sides of our papers. (I make sure that copy papers with errors be recycled into my classroom so students can use the clean sides for scratch papers.) Instead of allowing students to use plastic water bottles, I ask them to rely on reusable water bottles. For my class it isn’t about just energy, but rather how can we as a class learn to reduce waste in all areas of life.
15. Make Recycled Crafts
Recycle with this idea by Gina, a 4/5th Grade Teacher, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
One of the largest problems today is our dependency and overuse of plastic bags. These bags take eons to disintegrate and are clogging many of our waterways. The bags become caught in trees and electrical wires and cause harm to wildlife. In order to help keep plastic bags out of our landfills and oceans, I show my students how they may iron the bags and turn them into usable items to keep and share. (I do the ironing in my classroom and send a note to parents instructing them to supervise this activity at home.) After cutting the handles and turning the plastic inside out, I fold the bags into layers, cover the layers with parchment paper and iron them so they fuse together. You can experiment with ironing different types of plastic bags together. We use the ironed bag material to craft lots of items such as wallets, wristbands and even messenger bags!
16. Create a Rube Goldberg Machine
Get creative with this idea by Cindy, a 3rd Grade Teacher, in Houston, Texas.
For Earth Day, we have our students create a “Rube Goldberg” style machine created out of recycled materials. A Rube Goldberg machine is comprised of a series of moving parts that interconnect to perform a simple task. For our purposes, we invite students to use recyclables to create a simple marble run machine; students then test their creations by dropping one marble at a time into their runs to complete one of the following tasks: open a door, ring a bell, or raise a flag. (Tip: Try challenging older students to incorporate a specific number of levers, inclined planes, screws, pulleys and wedges into their marble contraptions.) Our students love knowing their trash can become treasures that help them experience the fun and physics of simple machines.
17. Kick-Off Earth Day in Style
Try these really good ideas for Earth Day by Barbara, a Pre-K-3rd Grade Teacher, from Friendswood, Texas.
Celebrating Earth Day can be a bit overwhelming for new teachers. There’s plenty of information on the topic and so many ways to involve kids, but where to begin? I have found that a literature-based approach works well for beginning and veteran teachers alike. I begin by assembling a collection of fiction and nonfiction books designed to help raise student awareness of issues and practices related to environmentally responsible practices. These books become thought-provoking springboards for discussion and projects related to Earth Day.
Here are some of our favorite “go-green reads”:
• The Earth Book by Todd Parr (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010)
With its colorful array of primary pictures, this book offers ten suggestions for how kids can help the Earth. While the ideas may all seem very elementary, they provide a wealth of opportunity for exploration and curricular integration that go beyond the book. For example, after reading “I throw garbage in the trash can and recycle glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic because . . . I love to walk barefoot in the grass and I don’t want to move to Mars!,” ask students what they think about moving to Mars, then research what it would take to build a human habitat on the Red Planet. The Earth Book is printed on recycled paper with non-toxic soy inks and includes a GO GREEN poster that you can detach and display as a visual reminder of the earth-saving strategies. Have students brainstorm other ways they could conserve our resources; encourage them to create posters with eco-friendly tips of their own to hang around school as they campaign for conservation and celebrate Earth Day.
• 10 Things I Can Do To Help My World by Melanie Walsh (Candlewick, 2008) is a great pick for younger conservationists. It demonstrates how even small changes can make a big difference in our efforts to take care of Planet Earth. The book offers tips that make sense to kids (such as turning off the water while brushing teeth and using both sides of a piece of paper) plus reasons why each tip is eco-friendly. The book provides a perfect introduction to environmental studies; its vibrant art and large format means it’s an easy book to share in a group setting.
• The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge by Joanna Cole (Scholastic, 2010). Older students will join Ms. Frizzle and her students as they explore serious topics including climate change, the greenhouse effect, alternative energy sources and carbon dioxide emissions. Back at school and at home, the characters model ways your students can put energy-saving practices into effect.
• We Are Extremely Very Good Recyclers by Lauren Child (Dial, 2009).
In this book, Lola decides to enter a recycling competition in order to qualify to receive her very own real live tree to plant. With the clock ticking, Lola turns to her classmates for help. This tale is printed on eco-friendly paper and includes save-the-Earth suggestions plus a tree poster just like Lola’s. Together the book and poster serve as a call for young students to institute and track similar recycling projects at home and in school.
18. School-wide Recycling
Recycling is fun with this idea by Rachna, a 3rd Grade Teacher, in Arlington, VA.
In order to teach recycling in a way that holds meaning for students, I have students decorate recycled boxes to be used in our classroom and throughout the school. First, we have students brainstorm key Earth Day phrases, words and symbols/pictures to put on the boxes; we record these on a chart or electronic whiteboard. Second, we have each individual student draw a box design plan and decide what to do with his or her box once it is completed. (For example, students may want to decorate boxes for their current or former teachers, for the library, for the principal’s office, etc.). Next, provide students with sturdy cardboard boxes and art supplies such as markers, paints, stickers, stamps, etc. (Tip: Recycled boxes with lids, such as those used to store copy paper work best.) After students have completed their boxes, we encourage them to hand-deliver their boxes to their lucky recipients. Because the boxes remain in plain sight and get used everyday, they serve as a constant and relevant reminder of the importance of recycling.