Sustainability for Kids – Simple Ways to Teach Kids to be More Eco-Friendly

The world is constantly reminding us that we need to take action on climate change NOW! Between floods, droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, we can’t help but notice. As parents, one of our main responsibilities should be to about sustainability for kids and how to raise eco-friendly children.

But where do you start?

Don’t worry! I got you! This guide will give you tips and advice for sustainability for kids and how to encourage your children to think about the environment in their everyday lives.

What Is Sustainability?

You’ve probably heard about sustainable living and sustainability for kids sounds awesome, right? But what exactly is sustainability?

The UN World Commission on Environment and Development calls sustainability: “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Meanwhile, the UCLA Sustainability Committee defines it as: “the integration of environmental health, social equity, and economic vitality in order to create thriving, healthy, diverse, and resilient communities for this generation and generations to come.”

These are all big words, so how do we define sustainability for kids? In essence, sustainability is about living in a way that protects future life (our children’s lives!) by respecting the earth and one another. 

Why Is It Important To Be Sustainable?

Making changes to our lives isn’t always easy, especially when you have your regular everyday life pressures too. Are you really worried about buying grass-fed beef when your grocery bill is going up and up each month and you can barely afford the basics?

I get it! But we have to remember WHY we’re making these changes.

Humans are naturally very shortsighted. We’re not great about saving for retirement. We’d rather watch another episode on Netflix that go for a run because the immediate benefit outweighs the long term.

But it is important to be sustainable for one very important reason: it ensures that life can continue for all of us in the future, in the healthiest and best way possible. To achieve this, we have to make sure we live in a way that protects the earth and our communities. 

Our children’s future LITERALLY depends on the decisions we make today!

What Are The Benefits Of Teaching Sustainability To Kids?

There are lots of benefits to teaching sustainability to your children. By starting these lessons early, you will instill the principles of sustainability in them for their entire lives. 

If we build eco-friendly habits during our childhood, it is much easier for us to stick with them into adulthood. This is the best time for your kids to learn to live in the most sustainable way possible so they continue these practices for the long term… and teach their own children!

Teaching sustainability to kids also teaches them:

  • Empathy: to think about how their actions affect others, including the earth, animals, and people
  • Respect: to honor the other inhabitants of the earth and the earth itself
  • Self-sufficiency: to learn important lessons in being self-sufficient, including growing their own food
  • Awareness: to be aware of the pressing issues of climate change, so they can be a part of ongoing changes throughout their lives
  • Appreciation: to appreciate the work and effort that goes into producing food, protecting natural resources, and caring for one another
  • Community: to develop a sense of community with other human beings and see the earth as our shared home
  • Responsibility: to take the initiative to do their part in living more sustainably, which is a planet-wide effort 

How To Introduce Sustainability To Your Kids

You don’t need to introduce the idea of sustainability in any special way to your kids. In fact, the best way to introduce it is to adopt sustainable practices in your own lives! 

Simply explaining the reasons why you are changing your habits will help your kids learn as well.

Kids love to learn and be part of group activities! Here are some of the explanations you can give your kids, especially if they are still very young:

  • “Would you like to help me do the laundry? We’ll turn the dial to the ‘cold’ setting. Our clothes still get clean in cold water, but it’s a lot better for the earth!”
  • “When you’re done with your yogurt container, please put it in the recycling box instead of the trash can, so we can take it to the recycling center together this week.” 
  • “I think that’s enough water for your bath. Let’s make sure to only use the water that we need!”
Faucet running water

Simple Ways to Start Being A More Sustainable Family

There are lots of ways to start living more sustainably and small eco-friendly habits you can adopt. Making it a family effort is a great way to keep things fun and to improve your likelihood of making permanent changes.

You might feel like these are all small changes and can’t possibly make that much of a difference. But if we all start to make small changes, those will snowball into larger changes!

Here are some of the best ways to engage in sustainable living with your family

Turn Off Lights And Electronics 

Make a family pledge to turn off lights whenever you leave a room. Similarly, make sure to unplug any electronics when they’re not in use, as they consume energy even when they’re at rest.

Your electric bill will also thank you for the conservation effort! And we can all do with saving money on our energy bills right now!

Walk Instead Of Drive 

It’s not always an option to walk instead of drive, especially if you have young kids. But if it’s available to you, look for ways to reduce the amount that you use your car. Prioritize going on family walks or even invest in bicycles.

Family walking and looking at wind turbines - sustainability for kids

Alternatively, if you can’t get where you’re going on foot, try to economize your driving by grouping errands so there are fewer trips.

 Also, consider carpooling to events or after-school activities. Kids love the opportunity to spend more time with their friends too!

Go Vegetarian 

Okay, you don’t have to go fully vegetarian, but it is good to cut out meat as much as possible. The way we raise meat animals just isn’t sustainable, so going meatless — or mostly meatless — is much better for the planet.

Make it a family activity to plan vegetarian meals and explore new foods together. Try doing “Meatless Mondays“, and just switch out one meal a week to a meatless alternative.

When I first started trying out vegetarian meals, my family was not too sure about it. But over time, we tried different recipes and found some new favorites! Not we eat meatless about half the time and my family is ASKING for more veggie meals!

There are some other benefits of eating less meat:

  • Cheaper: Meat is expensive! You can make a tasty and filling meal for a lot less money when you skip the meat.
  • Healthier: Yes, we all know veggies are good for us and meat isn’t so great (in large quantities anyway). So you’ll be doing your body a favor by switching out the meat.
  • Quicker: Meat takes longer to cook! You have to cook meat for a relatively long time to make sure it’s safe to eat, but with veggies your cooking time will be reduced… a lot!

Start a Garden 

Starting a garden with kids is a great way of living sustainably for families since it doubles as a fun and educational opportunity. This is a prime opportunity to teach them how food grows and how to care for plants.

If you are feeling ambitious, you can even look into a simple greenhouse for your yard, which will let you grow food for much of the year. 

Mother and child planting a sustainable garden together

Your kids will enjoy watching the plants grow and eventually being able to harvest them and prepare them for eating. It may also help them gain an appreciation for where their food comes from!

And trust me – homegrown veggies taste soooo much better than store-bought!

Choose Reusable Instead Of Disposable 

It is not always possible to get reusable products instead of disposable ones. Cost, accessibility, and convenience can all play a factor. However, whenever it is possible for you, try to choose reusable or biodegradable products. 

Here are examples of some products you can find in reusable or permanent varieties:

Shop Secondhand When Possible

Did you know that textiles make up close to 5 percent of all the waste in landfills? Millions of tons of textiles are thrown away every year. And then there is the environmental impact of manufacturing clothing too. The fashion industry accounts for 10% of all carbon dioxide output and 20% of all plastic (mainly in the form of polyester) produced today too!

One of the best ways to avoid this is to shop secondhand when you can. Similarly, try to donate your old clothes instead of tossing them.

There are lots of ways to buy second-hand and make sure your old clothes go to someone who will use them. Try having a yard sale, donating to a local charity or thrift store, or consignment store. You could even try an online consignment store, like ThreadUp

And… guess what? This small change will save you money! Are you seeing a common theme here? (Hint: living more sustainably can save you money!)

Sustainable shopping at a thrift store

Examples Of How To Be Sustainable with Kids 

So what are some ways to be sustainable and how do you start to teach your kids about the concept?

We show sustainability in actions, not just in talk! Here are some ways to start out becoming more sustainable with your kids. 

The Three R’s

You’ve probably heard others talk about the three R’s before. These are Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. 

Reduce means cutting back on the amount that you consume. This can be anything!

Challenge your kids to think of ways to reduce their consumption. Maybe you pledge to eat less meat, use less electricity, or buy fewer new items. All of these decrease your carbon footprint and help you become more sustainable! 

Reuse is all about finding new ways to use the things that you would normally throw away!

Upcycle scrap wood into furniture, keep old glass jars to reuse as plant holders, and get creative with other ways you can reuse items instead of tossing them into the trash. 

One of the most fun ways to reuse items is to turn them into craft projects! Try this with cardboard boxes or glass bottles for a fun family activity. And it will save you money instead of buying those expensive craft kids at the store!

Recycle is the last of the three R’s, and it’s more self-explanatory!

Teach your kids about the importance of recycling and how to put things in the proper bins. You can even sort recycling together as a family, separating paper, plastic, metal, and other materials. 

When our old kitchen trash can finally broke, we replaced it with a double trash can, with one side (the larger side) for recycling and the other for the regular trash. (we also have a compost bin for our food scraps!)

Young girls being sustainable and recycling plastic

Reduce Your Energy Usage

When teaching sustainability for kids, an important thing for them to learn is about reducing their energy usage. Encourage them to turn off the lights when they leave a room and unplug electronics when they aren’t using them. 

You can also reduce energy in the way you do your laundry. Wash clothes on a cold cycle to cut back on your power use and live more sustainably. 

Eat At Home

The next time you are tempted to order take-out, try cooking a fresh family meal instead. It is even better if you use food that you grew yourself in a planter, greenhouse, or garden

Family cooking together as an example of sustainability for kids

Growing your own food is possible even if you don’t have a large yard or other space. Vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, onions, and much more can grow in pots on your front porch. This also lets your children experience how plants grow and learn how to care for them. 

You can also plant a vegetable, flower, tree, or other plant and give your child the responsibility of caring for it. This is incredibly important to their understanding of how food grows and how we are the stewards of the earth.

Reduce Water Usage

Encourage your kids to be aware of how much water they use and reduce it wherever possible.

Simple ways to do this include turning off the tap while brushing their teeth and keeping showers short. While it can be hard to remember these rules at the start, they will eventually become second nature! 

Help Them Become Part Of Community Action

Your family making changes to their lifestyle is very important, but it’s also important that you talk about the things you’re doing (and how easy it is!) with your friends and family. When we all work together to make small changes, they become BIG changes!

Talk to your kids about the ways that people take action in your local community through volunteering and other efforts. If they are old enough, encourage them to find out about local opportunities to volunteer. You can even make it a family effort!

Family picking up trash together

There are a lot of ways to help your community live more sustainably. It’s important for adults to model these efforts for their kids. Here are some of the top ways you can volunteer for your community to help the earth and live more sustainably! 

  • Volunteer to pick up trash in waterways, parks, and green areas
  • Spend a weekend at a food bank to reduce food waste 
  • Patronize local businesses over corporations 
  • Shop secondhand and donate your unwanted clothes and belongings
  • Participate in clothing and toy swaps 
  • Raise awareness about ways to live more sustainably 
  • Collect paper items like old phone books door-to-door and bring them to a local recycling plant
  • Plant a community garden
  • Organize a recycling drive or other public effort to make sustainable living steps 
  • Fundraise for a local school, library, or other public facility to make the switch to more earth-friendly practices 

Sustainability for Kids

I hope these ideas have shown you how easy it is to nurture sustainability for kids in your own family.

Remember they might seem like small changes, but we all have to start somewhere. Trying to change too much at once can be overwhelming (especially with kids!), so pick one of two ways you can change your habits and slowly adopt more changes over time.

And most importantly, remember WHY you’re making these changes! Our kids deserve the best possible chance at a safe and healthy future and we hold the key to ensuring that.