How to encourage children to be sustainable

The first step to teaching children about sustainability is to find a definition for it that is easy for them to understand. You might compare being sustainable to eating snacks. Although it might be fun and tasty to eat all your treats at once, it’s better to only have a few and save the rest to enjoy later – just like how sustainability aims to save the environment for the future. 

Another way to help children learn about sustainability is to teach them how to be more sustainable. Here are some techniques you could use:

Lead by example

Children tend to copy what they see, often subconsciously, so one of the easiest ways to encourage sustainability is to make sustainable choices yourself. Recycle as much of your waste as you can, buy eco-friendly products such as plastic-free toilet roll, and try to walk, bike or use public transport rather than taking the car. 

Doing these things gives you a great opportunity to explain to your children how these actions help to save the environment. One point that’s important to remember is that you don’t always have to link everything back to saving the environment. For example, you might say that recycling is good because it means your old items can be made into new ones so more people can enjoy them.

You don’t have to be overly technical or use scientific terms, but try to explain things without patronising or talking down to your children. Learning about the ‘why’ of sustainability is important, but getting your children to actually be sustainable should be your main aim.

Make sustainable activities fun

Turning learning into a game is another great way to help children get to grips with sustainability. People tend to remember things better when they are enjoying themselves, whether they’re children or adults – and playing helps to make sure your children actively want to be sustainable as they grow up. So how can you mesh sustainability and fun?

  • Turn it into a competition

Children are naturally competitive, so giving them challenges to be more sustainable can help to boost their enthusiasm. This is a technique that works well if you’re teaching more than one child at a time, but you can also make yourself one of the competitors. Why not take your children down to the beach or a river and see who can collect the most plastic?

  • Play games

When it’s time to sort through your recycling, try playing a game with your children to quiz them on which items go into which type of recycling. You could also ask your children to help with the shopping as a type of scavenger hunt – can they find any plastic-free kitchen roll?

  • Make a day of it

Remember, you’re not the only one who can teach your children, and sometimes you really don’t have the answers to your children’s questions. So why not enlist the help of the people who do? Museums, national parks and sustainability-focused charities such as the MCS Charitable Foundation are all great resources that often have programmes in place to support children’s education. 

Talk to them about the issues in a non-scary way 

Climate change can be a really scary topic for kids – after all, it’s about their future. It’s easy to feel helpless because there’s so much to be done, but you can help to avoid this by encouraging children to focus on the positive impact they can have. Avoid sugar coating the situation, but try to talk about successes of sustainability as well.

One way to reassure your children that there is hope and that sustainability can be achieved is to meet other like-minded people. You might be able to join a local eco-friendly group – and these people can help you to educate your children as well as to assure them that they’re not alone. Win-win!

At what age should you teach kids about sustainability?

How you teach your children can depend on their age, but the good news is that you can start when they’re toddlers. Young children love to put things in boxes, so why not let them help you with the recycling – remembering to wash hands afterwards of course. Then, as they get older, you can start to explain why you do these things and how it helps the environment. 

The important thing to remember is that all children are different, and so what might be appropriate for one eight-year-old might not be for another. Try to tailor your teaching to each individual child – and don’t worry if you can’t teach them everything. Just getting your children used to being more sustainable can have a great impact on the environment.