Parent teaching child to sort recyclables

As we all know, recycling is crucial when it comes to caring for our planet — and instilling this responsibility in children when they are young is a surefire way to encourage them to do it for years to come. But how can we encourage kids to recycle without reducing it to an unpleasant chore? As a former preschool teacher, I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to get children excited about cleanup is to turn it into a game.

As luck would have it, there are plenty of ways to transform something seemingly mundane like recycling into a fun pastime.

Sort-the-Recycling Game

To get kids started in the world of recycling, you first have to teach them how to sort. Allison McDonald of No Time for Flash Cards created a wonderful little game for her son to do just that. With nothing more than cardstock, magazines, berry containers, scissors, and double-stick tape, you can create a delightful game that allows your little ones to use their problem-solving skills and develop a love for sorting recyclables at the same time. Check out her recycling game tutorial.

Online Sorting Game

It’s no secret that today’s children are incredibly tech-savvy. These tiny digital natives have taken to computers and tablets like ducklings to water. If your kids are in the mood for something a little more 21st century than cardstock, consider this awesome recycling game from Turtle Diary. Players drag and drop items from a conveyor belt into one of three containers: compost, recycle, or trash. I love that she includes compost, as it adds one more element of sustainability for your kids to learn about!

Nature Walk Recycling Game

Nature walks have always been my go-to trick to get kids moving and interacting with their environment. Collecting rocks, doing crayon rubbings of fallen leaves, and catching and releasing insects all work to get children excited about the beauty of our planet. Nature walks also provide a great opportunity to do a little community service and recycling at the same time.

Choose a neighborhood, park, or semi-busy street (if you trust your kids not to run into traffic) to explore with your little ones. Take along two sturdy bags — one for trash and one for recycling. Have the children keep an eye out for litter. When they find some, allow them to sort it into the proper bag. You can even turn it into a fun bingo game! Take some time to talk about why we shouldn’t litter and how it’s bad for our environment. When the walk is over, dispose of the trash and pop the recycling items in their appropriate bins for curbside pickup or delivery to the recycling plant!

Safety note: Before you start on your walk, make sure your kids understand that they shouldn’t touch anything sharp they find, like hypodermic needles or broken glass. Bring along thick work gloves or a trash grabber tool so that you can safely pick up litter that you don’t want your kids to touch.

Treasure Hunt

At one point or another, many of us have flirted with the idea of buying a metal detector in the hopes of finding valuable coins or jewelry. Unfortunately, as most metal detector aficionados will tell you, you’re far more likely to find old beer cans than anything worthwhile. However, I’ve found that the key is to manage expectations — after all, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure!

Start by explaining that the goal is to find as many recyclable metal items as possible. Then, grab a child-sized metal detector and something to carry your finds in, and let your kids go exploring. Beaches, parks, fields, woodlands, and ghost towns are all great places to probe with a metal detector. By turning trash into “treasure,” you’ll get your kids excited about cleaning up their environment — and if you happen to find something of value, that’s just a bonus!

A Few More Tips

Though so much of recycling can be transformed into a game, you’ll still need to explain the importance of recycling to your children. Head to your local library and borrow some children’s books about recycling. Read these books together and talk to your kids about why you recycle and why you think it is important for every member of the family to do so as well.

Place recycling bins in multiple rooms of the house, and ensure they’re at a level that your children can access. You can even encourage them to create signs for the bins so they feel like they have a little more ownership of the project. The more involved your children are, the more fun they have — and the more fun they have, the more likely they are to continue to recycle for the rest of their lives.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock. Originally published on August 15, 2017, this article was updated in August 2022.

By Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.