15 Tried and True Earth Day Activities for Educators

On the first Earth day in 1970, I remember my first-grade class celebrating by picking up trash around our school. Now, almost 50 years later, we are still celebrating our Mother Earth on April 22 when the spring equinox begins.

Planetary exploration has become newsworthy again and puts our Mother Earth in the spotlight for preserving our climate, ecosystems, organisms, and species. Climate change, polar icecaps, greenhouse gases, poaching of endangered species—all of these issues are current topics for discussion and debate that elevate the young mind to a level of critical thinking where solutions, resolutions, and commitments are made.

Many schools and classrooms alike celebrate Earth and recognize our impact on our planet year round by having students participate in recycling teams or planting school gardens. To celebrate this year, here are a few of my favorite Earth Day classroom activities.

  1. Take your classroom outside! Spend an hour or the whole day learning outside (weather permitting!).
  2. Use art to engage students’ curiosity. Take a look at these beautiful, inspiring Earth Day posters from the 1970s. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then these graphics could be the launching platform from which a young mind makes resources preservation a lifelong value. If you’re an art teacher, have your students create their own Earth Day posters. If you’re an English/language arts, teacher, perhaps these posters could inspire a creative writing exercise.
  3. Combine Earth Day with Arbor Day. Have your class plant a tree! Invite the local urban forestry board or arbor association. Contact a local nursery or look on the web for companies that will donate free trees to plant.
  4. Take a field trip to the recycling plant. Have a representative show your students their sorting process and what is done with the materials collected.
  5. Learn about landfills. Help students research how immense landfills are working to reduce methane emissions. Take a tour of your local landfill, and learn how they are working to reduce and recycle waste. Inform yourself of the role landfill regulations play in community improvement and development projects.
  6. Create a 3D superhero. Use only recycled materials, and have students write about how their hero helps our Earth.
  7. Turn the cafeteria into a “lab.” Make lunchtime an experiment in zero waste. Have students compete to see who can use the fewest napkins, leave zero food on their plate, no crumbs, etc., at lunchtime. 
  8. Participate in local Earth Day activities. Participation in group activities builds awareness and spreads communication among global citizens who care about our planet. This is also a great opportunity to teach students about community service and the value of their community.
  9. Build a solar oven. You can use a pizza box to create your oven. This activity will help the class learn about alternative energy sources. Compare different variables, such as using newspaper or aluminum foil, to see how they affect the solar oven. Have students enjoy s'mores made from their ovens! 
  10. Create a project from recycled materials. Have students create something that would make their lives easier or more enjoyable. Here are some great examples:
    • Make a swing made out of plastic trash bags.
    • Turn a recycled glass jar into a toothbrush holder. Students can paint and/or decorate.
    • Build a greenhouse from water bottles, bamboo, wire or string, and some Gorilla Glue!
    • Make quilt squares from old t-shirts, sew together, and donate the finished quilt to a shelter.
  11. Check the code. Let plastic recycle codes inspire a lesson. Younger students can practice separating containers based on their numbers. Classrooms can also create a poster to inform the public about what can and cannot be recycled.
  12. Calculate students’ global footprint. Use the online ecological calculator on the Global Footprint Network. This ecological calculator will tell students how many planets would be needed if every human lived the same way (for most Americans, it’s about five or six additional planets!). It breaks the “footprint” down into different impact categories, so students can quantify which areas of their life use the most energy/water/land (food, transportations, clothing, etc.).
  13. TALK about it! When growing brains talk, expressive vocabulary imprints on the mind and science words and concepts become permanent thinking tools. Any of the activities on this list would be great fodder for a classroom discussion.
  14. Watch a short film. Visit www.cainesarcade.com and learn how one young mind recycled used cardboard boxes and how it became a global phenomenon! Plan to participate in the 2017 Caine’s Arcade Cardboard Challenge.
  15. Start a vegetable garden for your school. Plant the seeds and learn about sustainable foods. You could also start a compost bin in your cafeteria and use the compost for your vegetable garden.

Being able to tap into your students’ social emotional learning is a benefit to crossing curricular boundaries and synthesizing their artistic, analytical, creative, problem solving, and real-word engagement of issues with which they and their children will face. Whether inspiring a future eco-warrior or planting the seeds of commitment to habits of recycling, you, as their teacher, bring students to the table of information, exploration of ideas, and application of solutions that move our planet one step closer to health, longevity, and well-being.

This article is presented by the Science Teachers Association of Texas. It was written by Laura Lee McLeod, STAT president elect, with contributions from Linda Schaake, STAT member at large.

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