Top tips for your own eco-warriors

Playing to their fascination with nature makes it easy to teach green issues to children

By Sally J. Hall
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:22

One of the most exciting things about being a parent is teaching your child new skills, values and talents. So why not invest quality time teaching them how to keep their planet clean, green and beautiful – for all our futures?

One of the most exciting things about being a parent is teaching your child new skills, values and talents. So why not invest quality time teaching them how to keep their planet clean, green and beautiful – for all our futures?

Recycling rules

Kids love being given responsibilities for special tasks. So enthuse them about recycling and get them to help you with the task of collecting and sorting all the household recyclable waste each week. You may want to reward them for their efforts with a star chart, which can earn them a treat, such as an outing or a new book, or simply a bit more pocket money or a nice cake.

A good way to start is to involve them in how and where you store recyclable items – this may mean organising separate bins for paper, plastics, cardboard and so on. Get them to help you when cooking, too, as they can open packets, decide what can be recycled and put them in the correct bin.

Have a talk with your children about what products can be recycled, why it's important and which are the most easily re-used substances. You can also discuss how you can reduce the amount of packaging you buy in the first place. You may find the kids come up with surprising insights, such as buying large, rather than individual, size drinks.

If you usually buy vegetables from supermarkets in plastic bags, take the kids to your nearest greengrocer and let them choose loose fruit and vegetables instead. Looking for amusingly shaped veg is always fun – our local greengrocer puts the funniest one on display each week – and you may also find that the kids pick out items they've never tried before, so they'll be more likely to eat them. And you can be happy knowing they are getting the freshest, most nutritious produce available, that hasn't sat in a supermarket warehouse.

If you don't have a doorstep collection, work a visit to the recycling centre into your weekly shop. Kids love throwing bottles into the glass bins to hear them smash. Once in a while, gather together items, such as batteries and old electronics, that must go to a more specialised centre, then follow up the trip with some fun at the park.

Creative composting

What to do with all the peelings when your kids have helped cook dinner? Instead of throwing them in the dustbin, there are a couple of options to get your children excited about environmental issues and creating sustainable lives.

Either get them to help put all natural waste in your council recycling box, or if you're lucky enough to have the space in your garden, start a compost heap. There are lots of options available to you – if you are a DIY enthusiast, old planks can be knocked together and redundant carpet can be put on top to get it good and hot inside.

Alternatively, you can get your kids to help you look for ready-made compost bins on gardening websites such as The Organic Gardening Catalogue ( Then do a little research on how to make the best compost, which you can use to give some pretty roses a boost and make your vegetables bigger. There are great tips at Garden Organic (, which you and your children can read up on together before you start.

Kids love bugs and mini beasts, and luckily so does your garden, so look at buying a stock of worms to munch their way through your household waste, turning it into nutritious compost. Wiggly Wigglers ( is an online shop that caters for all your needs here, offering the wonderfully named Can O' Worms or the Worm Café composting systems. It's great fun taking newly made compost out of the units and using it to feed the garden, and the children can count the worms as you do so.

Growing for Britain

One of the most exciting things to do with children is to start growing your own organic plants and – hopefully – eating the produce that appears each harvest time. This is an easy, fun way to teach children about our planet, the seasons and how things grow.

Too often, we are encouraged to reach for supermarket produce that is out of season but has been shipped – or worse, flown – from all over the world to satisfy our palates, creating high CO2 emissions. The sad thing is, many of us have lost sight of the fact that locally grown food, in its proper season, tastes far better than that grown abroad. The asparagus season in Britain is very short – about a month – but freshly picked, with a little butter and black pepper, it tastes divine. Would you rather have a tasteless strawberry in February, forced on in a poly tunnel in Spain, or one smelling of summer, bursting with natural sugars, from a field near your home in July? I know which my kids would prefer, especially if they get to pick it themselves.

Some great plants to start off with are courgettes, which are incredibly easy to grow, and tomatoes. Broccoli is prolific and mange tout grows with the smallest amount of effort on your part. Start with fruit and vegetables your kids love and then experiment with other things. Why not plant one each of a small apple, pear and plum tree? Don't be put off if you only have a little space, either. Put seedlings in pots on the patio, in window boxes, which provide a warm place for peppers, old Wellington boots make a great bed for a chilli plant and a hanging basket will give you strawberries by the dozen.

Don't despair that your brand-new plants will be attacked by pests – there are some fantastic natural pest control products available that use no artificial chemicals. Slugs and vine weevils can be targeted with nematodes (microscopic bugs that kill them from within). Ladybirds and lacewings eat those pesky aphids by the million and you can use slug and snail traps and barriers to protect your seedbeds. Take a look at all the pest control options at Green Gardener (, which also features some handy tips.

Children find the natural world fascination, so encourage them to get involved with putting up bird boxes and feeders, order butterfly and insect farms to pollinate your plants or even investigate keeping bees for your very own honey. The more natural wildlife you encourage to your garden, the better for the environment.

Second-hand clothes

We live in times when clothing is incredibly cheap and practically disposable, when new items appear each season only to be replaced by the latest trend. This has led us to throw away perfectly serviceable items. Luckily, children are quick to grasp concepts and they understand that buying clothes made from polluting, artificial fibres made by child labour in third world countries is no great thing.

Since they grow so quickly, many items of clothing can be used by two, three or even four children before they fall apart. I encourage my kids to put the things they have outgrown into a pile, which we then swap with neighbours and cousins, and they do the same for us. If there are more items than we need, they go to the local charity shop and even if they are really past it, they can be recycled. If you're handy with a needle, you can alter clothes to fit, turn hems up or down, or add a sash and some sequins for the school disco.

Old clothes are also an endless source of art and craft activities for our talented children. They love making puppets out of old socks and with buttons for eyes, dolls' clothes from scraps of satin, or even completely new toys – denim and corduroy are especially good for this. Towards the end of the year, they can gather up old pyjamas, trousers and hats to make a guy for bonfire night – though if I stop to consider the carbon emitted by all those bonfires, I fear the ethical part of my brain will explode.

Five Top Tips for Creating Little Eco-Warriors

*Get a swap group organised with local mums, at playgroup or school. Swap your outgrown clothes and toys for ones that are more appropriate for your child.

*Go green at school. Talk to your teacher about taking old household products into school to be used in art projects. Encourage them to buy recycled or sustainable stationery and give your kids recycled pencil cases and lunchboxes.

*Use the car less. Walk your children to school to give them some daily exercise and cut down on harmful carbon emissions. Use public transport as much as possible. What kid doesn't love sitting at the front of a bus's top deck?

*Teach kids about carbon emissions from household use by getting them to help load the washing machine or dishwasher fully before running it (or wash up by hand) and encourage them to turn off televisions, games consoles and computers.

*Save water by turning off the tap when cleaning teeth and by bathing together – up to a certain age, at least. Get them to turn off lights and close doors in winter to conserve energy.

Creating community gardens

All across Britain, families are literally taking their food choices into their own hands. They and their children are digging up bits of their garden or useless areas of land and turning them into allotments to grow fruit and veg.

One such scheme is the Sunnyside Community Garden, created 25 years ago in Archway, North London.

Formed by local families who lobbied the council to let them use an area of wasteland, it was transformed into a landscaped garden with a meadow, pond, paths, and a wooded area. The founders wished it to be easily accessible to children and people with special needs and disabilities, with the aim of providing horticultural therapy, to promote sustainability and good horticultural practices.

The garden has recently been awarded the Green Pennant award by the Civic Trust for its work.


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