Child's hands holding crushed aluminum cans

Recycling is one of the most cited aspects of environmental action. It’s also one in which the whole family can participate. To see how you can make recycling fun for your kids, whether they’re toddlers or teenagers, check out these tips.

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1. Start early

We’ve recycled in my household for years, so it was only natural that my daughter, Sofie, was exposed to the concept early on. With early exposure, recycling becomes as habitual as putting garbage in the trash can.

Set up recycling bins in an area where your child sees you using them. Introduce the language early, and make a habit of regularly pointing out what you’re doing: “This plastic bottle gets recycled in the blue bin. The newspaper goes in the green bin.” Before you know it, your child will be coming to you with an item and asking whether it goes in the green or blue bin.

2. Make recycling convenient

Location, location, location! If it’s easy for kids to recycle, they’re more likely to do it. Place marked bins in the kitchen next to the trash can. Put a box in your child’s bedroom for recycling paper. You might even consider putting a small container in the bathroom for collecting toilet-paper tubes. Accessibility is key.

3. Get their game on

For younger kids, different colored recycling bins make an easy, fun lesson in colors and materials. Even when they’re as young as two, they can play a game matching household items with the right bin color. Make piles and have your child try to match the material with the proper bin.

If you just have a single bin in the house for recyclables, simply modify the original game. Have your child try to pick which items go in the recycling bin and which go in the trash. This is a great opportunity to teach your child about wishcycling.

Online at National Geographic Kids, your child can help Gus the Gorilla “speed clean” the park by sorting trash — including challenging items such as toothpaste tubes and tea bags — into its proper containers. Older kids may enjoy playing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Recycle City. This site explains the roles that various places have in recycling, and it provides activities that get kids thinking critically. In the Dumptown Game, your child becomes the city manager and has to figure out how to encourage residents to recycle and reduce waste.

4. Encourage creativity

Kids tend to participate more when they are invested in an activity. Allow them to decorate your household recycling bins in ways that please them, whether that involves taping on pictures of recyclable items or painting a bin glittery pink.

Ask your child to designate a stuffed animal as your household’s recycling mascot. Make the mascot a superhero cape or fashion an outfit for it from recycled materials, and give it a name like “Green Bin Grover.” Kids can put the mascots in charge of recycling the Sunday newspaper or teaching younger siblings how to help.

5. Take a tour

Older kids like to be informed; they want to know the “why” of everything. Educate them with a tour of your local recycling facility. They can ask all their questions there and gain firsthand insight into why recycling is important. If your local facility isn’t providing in-person tours due to COVID-19, they may offer virtual tours.

6. Entertain and educate with books and online videos

Use books and videos to your advantage. Check out books from the library and read them together. Here are five fun books that talk about recycling for young children.

Search YouTube for kid-friendly videos that talk about recycling concepts. Anything that makes your kids laugh will get watched over and over — and that’s a good thing! You might want to start with Will It Recycle?, a video that features a silly monkey named Eek.

Originally published on February 5, 2014, this article was updated in February 2022.