The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License,
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License,

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Recycling: Make the Concept Smaller So Children Can Better Understand

By Vicki McClure Davidson

For seven years, I was a devoted Girl Scout leader for my daughter and a bevy of other girls in her class. We started in first grade and concluded (not my choice, but interest had started to wane, so I wanted to end on a high note) after 7th grade.

Teaching younger children about recycling has better, longer-lasting results when they are actively involved with a smaller piece of the concept. | Photo credit: iStock
Teaching younger children about recycling has better, longer-lasting results when they are actively engrossed, hands-on involved with a smaller piece of the concept. | Photo credit: iStock 

I often spoke to my young Scouts about taking care of the earth and the importance of recycling, about not being careless about wasting resources, and about keeping the environment clean. While I think they sometimes understood (clean is good, dirty is bad), most of the time, I could see bewilderment (or disinterest) on their faces. Whoosh... a lot of it went right over their heads. Too much depended on science they couldn't grasp. They wanted to, but it was more than they could wrap their little brains around, and so, much of what they learned wasn't really learned. It was more like a parrot repeating phrases with no understanding. Sure, Petey the Parrot may SAY "I love you," but deep down, you know he has no idea what that means.

The world is so big and my Girl Scouts were so small. It was too abstract, too large a concept for them. They weren't able to fully understand how the impact of their actions—tossing an empty soda can into the gutter, letting the water run while brushing their teeth, throwing a gum wrapper on the playground—could be part of something with potentially enormous consequences.

I had to find a better way to make it sink in, not be something they merely parroted, but didn't follow through on because it wasn't real enough for them. How could their gum wrapper (so small) hurt the earth (so big)? It wasn't their fault—they needed something more concrete to help them understand and improve upon non-environmental, wasteful habits.


One method that hit home better was when we did craft projects with recycled items. For one lesson, we used old International Coffee tins with lids that I had collected and we were making them into beautiful travel sewing kits. To decorate them, we used recycled items that some of the parents had sent in: old buttons, fabric scraps, sequins, glossy photos cut from magazines.

As the girls worked on them, we discussed other items that were normally thrown away at home that could be reused and made into something practical. This got their creative juices flowing (finding new purposes for old toilet paper rolls were a favorite), and they came up with many ideas on their own. This smaller slice of the concept was easier for them to grab onto, and had better impact. Rome wasn't built in a day, after all.

When children are involved with something, their brains seem to better process new information and they retain it better. Simply talking at my Girl Scouts in a group about the problems of littering and overfilling our landfills was far less productive than having them actively engaged in something fun, but focused, and discussing the same thing. The boredom factor was averted and they seemed to be better able to absorb the information. Brainstorming as a group was more casual and produced better results.

Recycling is a concept that all children, even small ones, can understand if it is presented to them in smaller bites over a period of time.

Most are visual and/or tactile learners, so seeing and touching something that pertained to recycling (like the coffee tin the Scouts were recycling/repurposing into sewing kits with recycled materials) enhanced their understanding of the bigger picture.

In other words, show, don't tell.



With children, many creative home projects for recycling can be employed to help them establish good habits. They can decorate a cardboard box to be used to hold the family's recyclables (plastic, newspapers, aluminum cans) before they are taking to the recycling bin or to the recycling center. You can take them on walks in the neighborhood, carrying a few plastic bags (and wearing protective gloves) to pick up litter that you find.

Make it as fun as possible so that your child doesn't feel that he or she is being forced into distasteful labor. As you go on your walk, you can ask them why they think people are so thoughtless to throw garbage into the street. The activity, coupled with asking the child for his or her opinion, will make the idea of recycling stick better. He or she will begin to see the benefit of small efforts. It also is a positive bonding time with your child. Make the picking up of litter into a game (how many cans will you find today?) for even better results. Let them keep any cash that is given by your local recycling centers for aluminum cans or newspapers for additional reinforcement.

Talking to and guiding children now to become savvy recyclers pays off as they get older. They will likely continue with their habit of recycling and not wasting resources as they mature and become adults, and they in turn, will teach their own children.

This seems to be working. We are far more aware and active as a society today in recycling than we were during the years before the environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 20 years ago, only one curbside recycling program existed in the United States, which collected several materials at the curb. By 2006, that had grown to more than 8,600 curbside programs across the United States. As of 2005, about 500 materials recovery facilities had been established to process the collected materials.

In 1999, the EPA reported that recycling and composting activities prevented about 64 million tons of material from ending up in U.S. landfills and incinerators. Today, our country recycles 32.5 percent of its waste, a rate that has almost doubled during the past 15 years. Teaching our children now will only continue to improve our recycling efforts. And as we do that, it will be easier to teach them to be more frugal with resources and to not needlessly create waste.



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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Municipal Solid Waste (