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Young Sprouts: Recycling for Kids

Classroom Development

2/2/2022 | Emily Jaeger

Recycling is a great way to introduce environmental stewardship into early childcare and green your classroom. You already have most of the materials for free and in abundance between school lunches and all those leftover scraps from art projects. However, it’s also important to remember that merely putting a recycling bin in the classroom does not instantly lead to recycling. If learners do not know how to recycle or why should you recycle, all that classroom waste will just end up in the trash.

Introducing Kids to Organic and Inorganic Matter

Imagine Susy has just finished her lunch and she wants to go play magna-tiles with her friends. It’s certainly easiest to take her banana peel, wrappers, and yogurt container and dump it all in the trash. In fact, her teacher will probably rejoice if she remembers to do all that on her own without prompting! While this moment is, of course, a great example of social learning, it is definitely a missed opportunity for a daily green routine.

Two things are missing. 1) The motivation to take an extra minute to sort trash from recyclables and compost. 2) Knowing the difference between those three categories. 

The first step towards classroom recycling is helping learners understand the difference between trash and recyclables (inorganic matter) and things made from plants or animals (organic matter). While the organic matter will rot or break down over time and return to the soil, inorganic matter lasts forever. 

Perhaps the larger challenge is explaining to toddlers and preschoolers why recycling is important on a global scale. Most children’s books that address the three R’s (reduce, reuse, and recycle) are targeted at children in elementary school. However, two age-appropriate and fun books that can help you explain where trash goes once it leaves the classroom are Look Out for Litter by Lisa Bullard and Don’t Throw That Away! by Lara Bergen. 

Trash vs. Nature Science Experiment

Help learners understand the difference between inorganic and organic matter with a simple science experiment. Place a snack wrapper and either a little bit of avocado or banana on a plate next to each other. Observe the differences between these two items using all five senses. Ask learners which they think will stay the same the longest and which will start to rot (a.k.a start returning to dirt) first. You can record and tally their hypotheses on a large piece of paper or whiteboard. 

Check-in with your experiment every day--the fruit will start to decompose quickly. Conclude the experiment by asking learners what they think will happen if someone accidentally (or on purpose) drops a wrapper on the ground versus a piece of banana? How long do they think that the wrappers and trash that ends up in a landfill will stay the same? Lead into instructions for sorting out lunch trash and practice together. If you are lucky enough to already have compost at your facility, you can also go on a short field trip to further observe how organic matter breaks down into dirt. 

Sorting Recyclables

A common Montessori-based activity for toddlers is sorting by shape, color, and type. Give this activity an environmental twist to help your learners practice distinguishing between different types of recyclables and/or organic and inorganic matter. For example, learners can sort out paper, cardboard, and plastic bottles to learn about different materials that can go in the recycling bin. Or they can sort trash--wrappers, tinfoil, and plastic scraps--from recyclables. You can also throw in some fake food toys or gathered leaves, flowers, and twigs to show what needs to go in the compost.

Still having trouble remembering what is recyclable and what isn’t? Try out this song to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  

Recycled Art

Collaging is an easy followup activity to sorting. Once you have your trash and recycled materials sorted, supply learners with paper or cardboard (for backing), glue, and any other decorative items. It’s up to you what category of items learners will use for their collages. The kids can also choose to make something abstract or try to form their materials into a specific image. This art project also encourages manual dexterity through tearing, cutting (if you have training scissors), and applying glue. 

Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com, or on instagram @soulinparaphrase. 

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

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