5 Eco-Friendly Kids' Activities

Wondering how you can keep your kids from spending the summer planted on the couch watching TV and playing video games? Get your children outside with activities that involve them in the environment, instill respect for the planet and create family time and memories.

“It’s about finding ways to explore the outdoors that fit with the children’s interests,” says Lisa Bardwell, executive director of Front Range Earth Force, a nonprofit that organizes programs to engage young people in environmental responsibility.

Bardwell points out that eco-friendly activities don’t have to mean a trip to the wilderness. Eco-friendly can mean working on an outdoor service project, growing a garden or getting crafty with nature’s art supplies.

Try these ideas:

1. Grow a Garden

"Adults tend to want control over their landscaping to keep the aesthetics,” says Kelly Keena, director of the Thorne Ecological Institute in Colorado. “But the value to kids is in including them in every step of the process.”

A vegetable garden is an easy start. “Ask your children what they would like to have as a fresh ingredient in a family dinner,” Keena says. “Talk out loud as you garden together — the need to amend the soil, what plants need to produce food, etc.” And let kids get right in there in the dirt when planting, tending and picking. Even toddlers can use a small plastic shovel, put seeds in the soil, and pull a carrot out of the ground (while you take a million photos).

No room for growing veggies? Grow a few in pots on a balcony, or find local farmers' markets, u-pick farms and community supported agriculture programs. Local Harvest offers a wonderful directory of farmers' markets and family farms. Or find a community garden in your area through the American Community Gardening Association.

To connect children to the plants, plant things kids want to plant, says Vanessa Keeley, director of youth programs at Growing Gardens, a community garden in Boulder, Colo. She also cautions against too much too soon. “Do it in small doses, and not during the hottest part of the day,” Keeley advises.

2. Get Crafty

Rainy day? Turn cereal boxes into magazine organizers (or a fun way corral kids books) by covering them in used wrapping paper, or paper grocery bags you decorate together. Explain the importance of reusing materials that still have a useful life, rather than throwing them in the landfill.

Or make a quick model of the solar system with clay and straws — and talk about how Earth is the only planet we know we can live on, and why we all need to take care of our planet.

"Whether you live in a cabin in the woods, a house in the suburbs, or an apartment in the city, you'll find natural treasures that you can turn into a huge number of projects and gifts," says Laura C. Martin in her book Nature's Art Box. Martin teaches how to make twig baskets, clay pots, potato stamps and dozens of other eco-friendly projects.

3. Take a Hike

“For younger children, the benefit is in shorter distances that are full of wonder, observations and questions,” Keena says. “For older kids, give them a reason to hike with you. What’s in it for them?” She recommends getting a local phenology  (the study of the times of recurring natural phenomena) book detailing the natural processes that occur during specific times of the year. You can also get a field guide to your area from the Audubon Society. “You can even theme your hike around those events,” Keena adds. Try a “name that wildflower” hike in mid- to late spring, for example.

Encourage your child’s school to offer environment-oriented field trips and activities, too. Earth Force is a great resource, offering programs to help educators bring environmental stewardship topics, events and activities into the curriculum.

4. Bike to the Store

Between 1990 and 2001, miles driven for shopping grew more than 40 percent — three times as fast as all other types of driving — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Ride bikes to the store together — get a cruiser bike with a big basket (or take a backpack). It’s great exercise — and a great opportunity to talk with kids about how using fossil fuels impacts the Earth. Take a stash of reusable shopping bags with you.

5. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint Together

From recycling to composting to using less water, eco-friendly activities can start before you leave the house. Calculate your environmental footprint together using The Conservation Fund's Carbon Zero Calculator. Let kids type in the numbers, and talk with them about what your footprint means. Then involve your kids in steps you can take to make it smaller — such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, which use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescents.

Whatever you do, embrace spontaneity, advises Keena. “Don’t feel like you have to plan every minute of each outdoor activity with your kids, or go to a wilderness area for meaningful experiences to happen,” she says. Just getting kids outdoors often leads to happenstance environmental education — discovering an earthworm, for example, or a honeybee on a flower. Set aside time to play in the backyard or walk to the park with your kids a couple of times a week, and experience the environment together even when you can’t get away.

More Resources

Environmental Kids Club: Arts and crafts, game ideas, printable activity books

Roots and Shoots: Find a group in your area interested in eco friendly activities

Earth Force: Find activities and events in your area and programs to help educators involve kids in the environment

“It’s Your World – If You Don’t Like it, Change it: Activism for Teenagers” by Mikki Halpin

“EcoKids: Raising Children Who care for the Earth” by Dan Chiras

“Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv

Kids Yoga DVDs by Gaiam

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ecochildsplay's picture
User offline. Last seen 9 years 10 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 06/15/2007

You may find more great eco friendly ideas and toys at my blog
Gardening and hiking are my favorite activities to do with my two small children.

Deirdre's picture
User offline. Last seen 6 years 41 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 11/04/2009

Great tips! Here are some more ideas for green projects for kids:

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