How do you explain sustainability to a kid?

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Sustainability is defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as “an attempt to provide the best outcomes for the human and natural environments both now and into the indefinite future.”  How do we explain this concept to our kids in terms they can grasp?

As kids grow, they’ll better understand complex ideas, so what you say will depend on their age and level of comprehension.  When they’re little, for example, you can explain that you aim to buy things that that won’t harm other creatures and the places they live.  You can discuss why you bought line-caught tuna instead of tuna that was caught using nets (which results in unwanted fish being killed).  You can go to the farmer’s market and talk about buying locally grown foods rather than fruit that has traveled here from Chile.

The best way to explain sustainability to a kid is to model it in your daily life and talk about why you’re making that choice. Your kids will learn about sustainability by what they see you doing, day in and day out:

  • On your walk, pick up trash, throw it away and talk about why it’s a bad choice to litter.
  • Plant a tree on Earth Day.
  • Recycle.
  • Compost.
  • Grow some potted vegetables or turn part of your yard into a small garden.
  • Turn off lights, radios, and electronics when they’re not being used, and remind your kids to turn off the faucet while they brush their teeth.
  • Run your dishwasher only when it’s full.
  • Bike or walk to the store or park when possible.
  • Line dry clothes outside on nice days rather than using the dryer.

As kids get older and more sophisticated, you can talk to them in more detail about sustainability.  There are fun, educational games they can play as well.  The following web sites may be of interest:

Ollie’s World (“Join Ollie and his friends as they Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink their actions to save the planet…”):

EcoKids (Games, stories, a picture gallery, calendar of events, contests and facts about Earth’s environment):

Climate Change Kids (Introduces the science of climate change to kids through fun and interesting activities):

We don’t want to frighten our kids or make them terrified about global climate change—they don’t need to hear worst-case, cataclysmic scenarios.  But they should understand that they can make sustainable choices.  We want them to feel empowered that they, themselves, can make small changes every day that will help our beloved Earth now and in the years to come.

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