Plastic Free July inspires people to be part of the solution to reducing plastic pollution. This annual event is a great opportunity to engage young children in exploring the topic and join with their community to create momentum and tackle the issue of plastic pollution together. However, you can explore the topic with children at any time of the year!
Plastic is not fantastic
Plastic is designed to last making it useful for many things in our lives. This also means plastic doesn’t biodegrade easily. Instead of breaking down, it breaks up – into smaller and smaller pieces, leaching toxins and threatening wildlife, causing irreversible damage to our ecosystems. Plastic is not only bad for the environment; it can also have a negative effect on our health.
But it gets recycled…doesn’t it?
It is estimated only 9.4% of plastic rubbish gets recycled – the rest ends up being burnt in landfill or living many lifetimes as permanent litter (Australian Plastics Recycled Survey).
Inviting children to be part of the solution
We all know that young children are powerful agents of change. As parents and educators, our role is to help children understand and make informed choices about plastic as early as possible. We all know the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In early education, lots of emphasis is placed on recycling education. Being confident in recycling is important, but as most plastic won’t be recycled, we need to put more emphasis on engaging children in learning about refusing and reducing plastic in their everyday lives. This will help to tackle the plastic problem at the source.
Below are some inquiry questions linked to activity ideas to help children understand and take action on plastic pollution. These activities are for early childhood (babies – 5 year olds) but can be adapted for any age level.
Inquiry question: What’s the problem with plastic?
When we ask this question at our incursions, kids answer without hesitation; “plastic is bad for animals; it can hurt them.” Children are growing up in a world where they know plastic is bad for wildlife and the environment, particularly in waterways and the ocean. Whales, turtles and seabirds often mistake plastic rubbish for food which can make them sick or be fatal.
Activity – Save the animals
This activity is an invitation to play. What you’ll need:
- A water tub
- Blue food dye (optional)
- Marine animal toys (optional)
- A range of plastic rubbish: fishing line, small pieces of plastic straws, cups, bags etc
Add (empty and clean) plastic rubbish to the water. Don’t let children see you do this as it is not modelling the behaviour we want to see. Ask children to pick out the pieces of plastic using tongs to save the animals.
Inquiry questions: What is rubbish? Is all rubbish the same?
Activity – Rubbish materials game
You can play this game with one child or a group of children. Start by asking children “what is rubbish?” and discuss their answers. Gently place a cleaned pile of rubbish on the ground in a protected space inside. Make sure there are a range of materials and check these materials for safety e.g., sharp edges, prior to the activity. Ask children “is all rubbish the same?” Rubbish comes in all shapes and sizes. You may like to pick up different example materials out of the pile to show children – some rubbish is big, some small, some rubbish is in a circle shape, other rubbish is rectangular, some rubbish is soft, and some is hard. Rubbish makes different sounds. Metal makes a clanging sound. Plastic bags make a rustling sound.
Quickly introduce the different rubbish materials in the pile to the children. You can highlight the characteristics of different materials e.g., paper and cardboard rip, glass feels cool on your skin… Then offer each child a turn to pick out a particular type of rubbish from the pile and show the group. For example, “Michael, can you please find something made of metal?” “Bella, can you please find something made of soft plastic, not hard plastic, soft?” Children can take turns picking out different types of rubbish materials: plastic, metal, glass, paper, cardboard, foam etc. If a child needs help, show a similar item and ask, “can you see anything like this in the pile?” This is a great sensory activity as children get to touch and listen to the sounds rubbish makes. For younger children, they will enjoy touching a range of clean rubbish materials. Helping children to identify different plastic items (soft and hard) and understanding how they are different to other waste materials is key here. Children can’t get good at recycling until they understand the difference between waste materials.
You also might like to show some fruits and vegetables (whole or scraps) afterwards to introduce ‘organic waste’ and kick start learning on biodegradable materials.
Activity – How much plastic waste do you make?
For a certain period of time e.g., 1 week, gather your waste (excluding nappy waste). Empty this onto a tarp keeping general and recycled waste separate. How much of the rubbish is plastic? What are these items? What can be recycled, composted or would go to landfill? Seeing a visual of the actual rubbish we create just in one day is mind boggling. You could use this to stimulate discussion about what plastic item/s you could swap to something that is better for the environment.
Inquiry questions: What happens after we’ve finished with rubbish? Where does it go? How long does rubbish take to break down?
Activity – Rubbish pick up
If you grew up in Australia, you may know the term Emu Parade. Go to the local park or oval and pick up rubbish using buckets and tongs. Take photos of the rubbish to discuss it later. Have the children guess where the rubbish came from and what it was used for. Dispose of it in the correct bins.
Activity – Trash timeline
Gather a range of clean rubbish items or pictures of these items. Make a line across the room using masking tape or rope and mark different timing along this e.g., 1 week, month, 1 year, 10 years, 1 million years. Hold up different waste items and ask children how long they think each item will take to break down. Place items on the timeline. Then check if children got it right and move the items around if they get it wrong. You can find information to prepare for the rubbish timeline activity here.
Activity: It doesn’t ‘go away’
If possible, arrange a visit to your local transfer station or recycling plant. Or visit a rubbish trap area at your local river. Seeing the amount of waste that gets out into the environment is powerful and can provoke many conversations with children.
Inquiry question: How can we say no to plastic?
Activity – Shopping role play and practice
Set up a shopping role play area with a range of real (preferred) or fake items in the supermarket – some with paper packaging, some with plastic etc. You also might like to put some loose items in large containers with scoops – think pasta, washing detergent, dried tea, rice or oats. This way children can experience what it’s like to shop for loose items, weigh this and practice filling up their paper bags. There are lots of options now to buy loose food products without pesky plastic packaging. Ask the children to go shopping and pick items without plastic. Tempt children with plastic bags so they can have fun saying ‘no!’ and instead use their reusable shopping bag.
If possible, arrange an excursion to a local grocery store. Breaking up into small groups of children with adult supervision, support children to get items on the shopping list and practice picking plastic-free packaging options.
Books about plastic waste
Some examples include:
What a Waste by Jess French
One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul
Little Turtle and the Changing Sea by Becky Davies
Somebody Swallowed Stanley by Sarah Roberts
Also check out our blog post on our favourite sustainability books for children.
Videos about plastic waste
What is Plastic Pollution? The Binocs Show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODni_Bey154
A Whale’s Tale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFPoIU5iiYQ
What is Plastic Pollution? Effects of Plastic Pollution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeJVq5Pbjas