Top 10 ways to educate your kids about sustainability

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 3.12.11 PMBy Carla Robertson

Making recycled art projects like caterpillars out of egg cartons doesn’t teach your kids about recycling or about sustainability. In a week or two, that egg carton caterpillar ends up in the trash, just like the original egg carton would have – except now it has some pipe cleaners, paint and glitter glued to it, and all probably made in a factory in China and shipped to the US, with carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere at every step.  I’m sounding a little contrarian today, aren’t I?  Hopefully I’ve gotten your attention because I have a major pet peeve about teaching children sustainability via unsustainable art projects!

Ah, now that that’s out of the way, how do we really teach our kids about sustainable living?  Here are my top ten tips.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.11.04 PM1.  Stop placating your kids with plastic junk.  Happy meal toys and party favor bags full of stuff that ends up I don’t know where – our houses are full of this stuff.  And if you’ve seen those recent photos of the stomach contents of albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean, they’re full of it too.  This is a tough one in New Orleans when several times of year this type of item is literally raining down from the sky (or floats, anyway!)  Consider how you might pare this down in your household – what else can you put in party bags that seems just as fun?  Are treat bags even necessary?

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.31.50 PM2.  Make your own kid-sized snacks.  I don’t know why, but everything marketed to kids, especially snack items, seems to be highly over-packaged.  Yes, it’s convenient, but it creates a lot of waste and teaches our children that it’s normal for food items to come brightly colored and wrapped in several layers of plastic.  If you send your kids to school with their own lunches, consider how you can incorporate reusable containers to cut down on all that waste.  Put your kids in charge of managing their personal containers so they don’t end up languishing and moldy in the bottoms of lockers and cubbies.  Stop buying bottled water and tiny juice boxes.  Get a cooler dispenser for your sports team.  Have people bring their own reusable bottles.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.26.15 PM3. Teach your children about the life cycle of stuff and about their carbon footprint.  Help them understand that everything – everything! – has to be grown or mined.  And everything eventually decomposes or is disposed of.  When we forget the process of making stuff from raw materials, we don’t have a sense of the other steps that led to the making of the item we want and how that impacts other people, ecosystems, animals, plants, and the water and air here and around the world. Kids can have fun calculating how much water or electricity is used in your household.  Design a contest to see how much your family can reduce that usage.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.34.05 PM4. Grow something – and yes, compost!  Top ten sustainability lists always list composting and gardening, but that’s because they’re so amazingly efficient, incredible and easy!  I love seeing kids at the farmers’ market clutching their own baby tomato plant that they’re going to take home and nurture.  Sunflowers are great too.  Grow an herb garden, a vegetable garden, or just a geranium in a pot!  If you’re really intrepid you can also order worms and create a worm composting project for your kids to enjoy!

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.34.25 PM5. Spend time in nature.  It’s free, it’s beautiful, and it’s healthy for mind, body and spirit.  Give your kids opportunities to explore and play outside, without the need for toys, gear or sports equipment.  Go for a walk in one of our beautiful parks.  Go to the swamp and look for alligators. Go somewhere where you’ll be surprised!  My favorite trails to take kids on are the Bayou Coquille, Marsh Overlook and Palmetto Trails at Jean Lafitte National Park Barataria.  But any park works. Help your kids look for cool things in nature that are often overlooked.  Bugs, clovers, birds, animal tracks – when’s the last time you made a clover flower necklace or followed an ant?

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.53.06 PM6. Walk or bike as a family. Stick to the side roads.  Take your time.  Run small errands on bikes or on foot with your kids.  And even when they’re not with you, model sustainability by walking or biking for your own errands when you can and commuting by bike. Kids learn by example – they’ll learn sustainable living from you.

7. Slow down.  The most common word for families with kids seems to be “busy”.  There are tons of demands on your time from school to activities, sports, plays, social events – you name it.  It seems that we find ourselves rushing from one experience to the next, never fully present, eating on the run.  Excess busyness is the opposite of sustainability.  Consider sitting down as a family and looking closely at everything on the calendar.  Is there an activity or commitment that doesn’t feel fun anymore?  What does everyone really want?  Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and then only keep the stuff that really resonates.  Be brave.  Slow your family down in this increasingly busy world.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 2.58.42 PM8. Recycle.  As in, really recycle.  If your kids learn that this is important in their science classes at school but it’s too inconvenient to do at home, that’s what they’ll remember.  With curbside single-stream recycling available, there’s no reason not to.  Let your kids be in charge of this part of your household waste management.


Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 3.03.27 PM9. Less stuff.  More fun. Turn off the electronics.  Enjoy down time with your family where everyone’s not plugged into a device in separate rooms.  Try a “power outage evening” where you eat dinner by candlelight and play board games or flashlight tag.

Screen Shot 2013-04-04 at 3.08.51 PM10.  Lead by example.  If living sustainably is too much of a hassle for you, it will be for your kids as well.  When you sacrifice personal values for the sake of convenience, your kids learn to do that too. If you don’t believe that a better, greener, more sane, less hectic future is possible, your kids won’t either.  If you’re not actively working to live the life that you believe is the best for your family, in your every-day, regular-living decisions, then nothing will change.  Start being a sustainability example today.

What kids and families are really looking for is connection – with each other, with nature, with ourselves – and when we confuse that with consumption, we make decisions that keep us busy, tired and over-burdened with clutter and stuff.  Connection is free.  Hugs are free.  Playing in the grass is free. Go have fun connecting with your kids today!


Carla Robertson is a teacher and life coach who specializes in helping overwhelmed people come back to living their wild and precious lives. She lives in New Orleans where every day feels like vacation, and she loves to help others figure out how they can live lighter and happier. In 2009 she thru-hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and she revisits the woods whenever she can, taking willing and curious souls with her. Find her at