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Teach ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ in the classroom

Teachers and caregivers have long used recycled items for children’s learning activities. Tight budgets demanded it. Recycling makes even more sense in today’s worrisome economic times and increasing concerns about climate change.
From a content perspective, it’s important to teach children recycling as a life skill, just as we teach them hygiene, safety, and nutrition, for example. We teach children the foundation of the academic three R’s—reading, writing, and arithmetic—and we can teach the foundation of the environmental three R’s—reduce, reuse, recycle.
The best way to teach all the R’s is to practice them in everyday activities. Make sure any items you use in learning activities are safe for children. They need to be clean and free of sharp edges or points. For children 3 and younger, items should not pose a choking hazard.
As you begin the activities below, explain your efforts to parents and urge their cooperation. Encourage parents to talk to their children about how they reduce, reuse, and recycle at home.

Garbage collage
(Age 3 and older)
Here’s what you need:
large paper bag or cardboard box
poster board (preferably a used one)
small discarded items such as the pop-tops from aluminum cans, straws, plastic lids, candy and gum wrappers, all washed and dried

1. After a routine activity, such as eating lunch, engage children in a discussion about trash. Sample questions: “Now that we’ve finished, what do we do with things that are left over or things we don’t want?” “What is trash?” “Where do we put trash?” Explain which items you (such as metal spoons) and which you throw into the trash can (paper napkins).
2. For the next day or two, ask similar questions as children engage in learning activities. “What do we do with leftover paper scraps (clay, crayons, paint)?”
3. Show children discarded items you’ve collected. Ask: “Where do we put things we don’t want anymore?” Use words like and .
4. Invite children to make one or two rules about what to do with trash, such as “Put trash in a wastebasket.” “Don’t throw trash on the ground.”
5. Invite children to glue the items on a poster board to make a class collage. Write the rules on the poster board.

Litter walk
(Age 4 and older)
Here’s what you need:
large paper or plastic bag
gloves, mittens, or socks for protecting children’s hands (optional)
graph paper and marker

1. Prepare for the activity by scouting for a spot along a nearby street or park where you can pick up litter. Choose a spot free of ants, poison ivy, and other hazards.
2. Talk with children about litter. Explain the purpose of your litter walk and discuss safety precautions.
3. Take children for a walk along the selected street. Photograph the area before picking up litter. Invite children to fill the bag with litter. Supervise children so they avoid broken glass and other hazardous items. Or have children protect their hands by wearing gloves, mittens, or socks. Photograph the area afterward.
4. When you return, have children sort the items. Make a graph showing items such as aluminum cans, plastic bottles, glass bottles, potato chip bags, and paper cups. Ask: “Which items did we find most often?” “Which can we recycle and which go into the garbage can?”
5. Have children wash their hands after handling litter.
6. Compare the before-and-after photos. Talk about which scene is more appealing and why. Encourage children to make a rule about not throwing trash along roadsides. Post the pictures and write the rule on the bulletin board.

Back to the earth
(Age 3 and older)
Here’s what you need:
apple core, lettuce leaf, or other fresh food scrap
plastic bottle
polystyrene meat tray
empty food can
sheet of newspaper
small shovel
craft sticks
pencil or marker

1. Take children outdoors. Show the items and ask them to predict what would happen to them if they were buried in the ground
2. Have children dig holes, one for each different item. Write the name of each item on a craft stick to mark where it will be buried.
3. Place one item in each hole and cover with at least 3 inches of dirt.
4. Wait for a month, and go back to dig up the items. Compare their findings to their earlier predictions. Ask the children to describe what they find. Use words such as and . Ask which products are biodegradable and which are not?
Variation: With school-age children, discuss how anthropologists and paleontologists dig up things in the ground and learn about how ancient peoples lived.

Let’s talk trash
(Age 4 and older)
Here’s what you need:
chart of plastic recycling codes (Copy “Know Your Plastics” on page 15.)
book on garbage collection (see list at the end of this article)

1. Take children on a brief tour of your building and ask them to point out containers of trash, such as wastebaskets, recycling bins, and dumpsters. Ask about what they see and smell. Talk about how some trash, such soiled tissues and diapers, contains germs and must not be handled.
2. Have children examine the bottom of plastic bottles in the recycling bin. Ask them to describe what they see. Ask: “What do the chasing arrows mean?” “What do you think the letters and numbers mean?”
3. Show children the chart and read it. Compare the codes on the bottles to those listed in the chart. Explain that only one or two are accepted for recycling now, but that may change in the future. Encourage them to look for the codes on plastic items at home.
4. If possible, arrange to take children outdoors when garbage and recycling trucks arrive for pickup. Ask children to describe what’s happening. Note whether trash containers are emptied by hand or machine. Ask: “Why is it important to get rid of trash?” “What do the workers do with the trash at the end of the day?”
5. Read a book about garbage collection and show photos. Or find photos on the Internet. Ask: “Where do newspapers and plastic bottles go?” “Where does the rest of the trash go?” “What’s a landfill?”
6. Invite a sanitation engineer to talk about recycling centers and landfills. Encourage the visitor to bring photos. Ask: “What would happen if we couldn’t get rid of all our trash?” Talk about why it’s important to reduce the amount of trash we throw out.
7. Brainstorm with children some ways they can reuse and reduce at school and at home.
Note: Invite children to check out this Web site for children done by Larimer County, Colo.,

Start a classroom compost pot
(Age 4 and older)
Here’s what you need:
unpeeled oranges for snack
old ceramic crock pot or other container with a snug lid

1. Have children wash their hands before snack. Show children the oranges and discuss the texture, color, and shape. Invite children to peel the oranges and eat the sections for snack
2. As children are eating, ask: “What should we do with the peelings?” Accept all answers, such as “Throw it away” and “Put it in the trash.”
3. Suggest that children put the peelings in the crock pot. Ask children to predict what will happen to the peelings.
4. Invite the children to check the peelings every two days. Ask them to describe what they see and smell. Use words like and .
Variation: Use any fresh fruit with rind or peelings, such as grapefruit, pineapple, or kiwi fruit. Bananas are not advised because they tend to attract fruit flies. Add vegetable scraps, such as potato peelings, wilted lettuce leaves, and celery tops.