Parents are responsible for teaching their children how to be kind and thoughtful stewards of the earth. Little kids love learning new things, but it’s difficult to explain environmental issues to them; they can’t understand complex phenomena like global climate change or the impact of invasive species. Young children simply don’t have the maturity or knowledge base to grasp such big concepts, many of which even baffle adults. And that’s okay! However, it’s good to help them start building their environmental awareness, by explaining simple eco-concerns. Pollution is a great place to start, and little kids can easily be incorporated into springtime cleanup efforts.

Photo via Friends School of Minnesota.

Over the winter, roadside pollution builds up. When the snowbanks melt, all of that grime and debris becomes very apparent. It is not practical or safe for small children to clean up roadside litter, but they can learn about what’s going on by looking out the window while driving down the expressway. Encourage family discussions about how the litter may have gotten there, how it could be cleaned up, and what will happen if it isn’t.

In addition to the obvious roadside litter, parks and waterfront areas may be significantly contaminated by the time spring arrives. Consider embarking on an environmental excursion:

Pack some garbage bags and work gloves, enough for all of the family members who will need them. Everyone should wear long sleeves, long pants, and sturdy closed-toe shoes. Bring a water bottle and snacks–don’t forget the sunscreen if you need it! When the supplies are ready, head out to your favorite local park, playground, or waterfront. Upon arrival, talk to the kids about picking up litter. Explain that clearing away trash is helpful to the environment, including local wildlife, and that it beautifies the community.

Red Squirrel

Photo by Rodney Campbell.

Before you begin the work, emphasize how to safe during the cleanup process. For example, explain that children should ask an adult to pick up anything sharp, like broken glass. If necessary, make sure that they know to avoid bio-waste like syringes or discarded prophylactics until an adult can handle those items carefully. Keep a close eye on toddlers to ensure that they don’t touch anything dangerous or try to put anything in their mouths. Children old enough to walk can be helpful–they just need supervision.

Once you start picking up litter, keep an eye out for small items (like bottle caps) that you might not otherwise notice. Consider having one family member responsible for carrying a bag to collect items like soda cans that can be recycled.

You may be surprised to find that this adult “chore” is a fun activity for children. Especially if your attitude is enthusiastic, they will follow suit and treat the cleanup as a treasure hunt. You will hear exclamations like, “Look at what I found!” or “Look how full my bag is!” The adults in your group will probably tire of bending over and picking up trash long before the kids do.

20 Namsan Botanical Garden

Photo by travel oriented (Flickr).

When the family is done collecting litter, celebrate with some playtime in the newly spic-and-span area. If your kids are already tuckered out, trying livening them up with hot chocolate or ice cream on the way home!

Kids learn valuable lessons by doing this activity. They see firsthand that when someone litters, the garbage doesn’t just disappear or disintegrate. It gets stuck in a tree branch or blown into a creek. They learn how much litter accumulates, and how much time and energy is required to clean it all up. They also learn that their family care enough about the environment to help clean it up!

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