The countdown to Christmas is on, and it’s at this time of year when things get into consumer overdrive – the buying, the crazy amount of packaging, the excess, the waste. At a time when we are so focused on giving, giving, giving, there’s one thing that needs a break from all of this – the planet. So how do we go about teaching children about sustainability and over consumption?
If you’re looking to infuse a little sense into things at this time of year, I’m delighted to be in conversation with Anya Hart Dyke – author of Our Throwaway Culture, a fun and original ‘how-to’ guide for parents to help and inspire their children to become conscious consumers – about how we can teach our children about sustainability and the perils of over consumption – whatever the time of year.
Although we all know it’s important to raise children to make a positive difference to the planet, why in your view is it so vital?
There’s something called shifting baseline syndrome – it’s a scientific term for the way in which each new generation lowers its standards over time because they don’t know any better.
So a young person will see the environmental damage and patterns of high consumption of today as completely normal, where previous generations would be appalled.
We need to show children that there’s nothing normal, acceptable or unchangeable about the state they find the planet in. They must be part of the solution, not the problem, and it is up to us to take a lead on this.
How big an issue is over consumption when it comes to children?
It’s huge. For a start, brands are influencing children from a surprisingly young age. I read about a study of 3-4 year olds who were asked which tasted better – the chips in a branded McDonalds packet or those in an unbranded one. Can you guess? Yes, they chose the former, even though the chips were both from McDonalds.
Teaching children to be discerning in the marketplace is a true life skill. But showing them the importance of buying less and choosing better quality, repairable products from companies that treat workers fairly, are low impact and give back to the local community feels like an impossible task.
It’s a long sentence to read and an even longer journey to embark on. Especially when most of us are struggling to get our heads around the issues, have to weigh up sometimes competing priorities like cost, health (is it organic?), functionality, and of course are both busy and weary.
But I think a common mistake is to think that children are too young to talk to about any of this. When my first child was very young my Mother-in-Law told me not to underestimate how much babies understood; to talk to her, to explain things to her. I have broadened that out to now spell out my purchasing choices – in a simple sentence, where I can – to my 4 year old.
That washable cotton cloths mean wet wipes won’t end up in the sea choking the fish, that bamboo toothbrushes become food for the worms when they’re worn out, that buying pre-loved toys is special because they arrive full of joy from fun had with another child (I get them to scribble a note to my children to say hi, and ‘enjoy’).
My biggest personal challenge at the moment is being given things we don’t need or want by loving friends and family and the next challenge just around the corner is when my daughter will want what her peers have. And just as I have battled with limiting how many sweets, sugary drinks and desserts she gets when her friends at nursery are given them, I won’t want her to be the odd one out.
Our house, like most, is full to the brim with underplayed-with toys. So I’ve been encouraging my children to find value in playing with household waste items like yogurt tubs and cardboard boxes, to swap, share and give away toys to friends, local play groups and charities.
Being surrounded by an abundance of brand new games, stuffed animals, plastic and cheap clothing is at best a distraction from the outdoors and creative play and at worst an endorsement of excessive choice and ultimately lots of waste.
How can we help children learn about some of the bigger issues around over consumption?
I think is a really important question because buying less and throwing less away isn’t where it ends. There has been fantastic and important coverage, kicked off by Blue Planet II, of the impact of plastic litter that winds up in the sea. This has made it easy to ‘see’ why we need to change our wasteful ways.
But the waste we generate is only part of the picture. You’ve got to think about the impact of producing our straws, plastic bottles, plastic toys. There are some great videos out there that show the journey these items go on, from across the world, to be used momentarily before being thrown away.
It’s really important to teach the bigger picture; to talk about the resources that go into making and transporting everything we buy and that this demand drives climate change, biodiversity loss and ultimately human suffering.
Can you give us some practical ideas of how they can learn to help look after our planet?
Leading by example is key. And listening to what your child thinks. They must want to participate in any waste reduction measures at home – they shouldn’t be forced. Often it’s the child who spurs the family on to make lifestyle changes anyway!
During my research I stumbled upon a book called Green My Parents, written by (teenage) children in the US. In a nutshell it’s a little bit of role reversal and encourages collaboration. Your child can draw up report cards for the family to assess individual progress cutting waste and agree a family contract that sets out aims and time frames and job titles. You need a CEO to keep the team on track, a Chief Sustainability Officer (is less going into the bins?), a Chief Financial Officer (are we saving money?). It makes it fun and teaches personal responsibility.
Litter pick-ups are important, very popular (so it’d be easy for parents to join in with one locally), and there are various ways to make them fun and educational too. They are a good way to feel like you’re actually doing something, of working collaboratively with others and of using social media to widen your impact – there are various social media accounts that encourage you to upload your finds.
And being conscious about consumption doesn’t mean having less fun and missing out. Forage for crafts to replace the plastic pom poms, stickers, sequins. Paint some rice and pasta, do some leaf rubbings, press some flowers, gather some feathers and cones. I’ve found it be much more fun and if you’re foraging outside, it’s a much longer-lasting activity that will include getting some fresh air. Tick, tick, tick.
How can we involve creativity and play in their education around sustainability?
My daughter and I have been burying things in the garden since she was 3. We plant little flags next to each item and wait a few weeks before we dig them up again, to learn about biodegradability. If the item is still there that’s not good, but if the worms have eaten it then that’s a thumbs up.
I use cotton cloths for wipes (bottoms, faces, surfaces) at home so to explain to my daughter why, I buried one, alongside a square of toilet roll and a plastic wet wipe. We also did this with a plastic pen, a wooden pencil, a plastic wax crayon and a piece of chalk.
It’s important to limit plastic pens that don’t last, plastic crafts that are used only once, and all cheap plastic toys that break or get lost, because it’s normalising a disposable way of life. When something breaks my daughter sometimes says “we’ll just get another one”. Gah!
A personal favourite for 4+ year olds is the news reporter game. All you need is a cardboard box and a pair of scissors to cut a rectangular-shaped hole in the bottom to create your telly. Pick a news article about plastic pollution, read it through with your child and get them to prepare a news story with a headline, some key facts and an interview with a sea creature. Get another child to ‘watch’ the news and give their reaction to the story.
And then there’s the timeless What’s the time Mr Wolf? Except the wolf is a turtle. Duffy the Sea Turtle was written by Ellie Jackson and tells the true story of a turtle that becomes very ill from ingesting plastic bags. Her idea was to adapt What’s the time Mr Wolf so some of the children dress up as plastic bags and others jump about like jellyfish, and the turtle tries to catch them ALL because it can’t distinguish between the two
What other life lessons should we be teaching our children around sustainability?
That if you want to really make a difference you need to be influencing others. Be that your friends, neighbours, colleagues, politicians, big brands. You need to speak up for what you believe in. As Dolly Parton sings in ‘I Believe in You’, just know the rules and know the facts. That’s it! So there is a big section on getting creative with how you can do this involving craftivism, chalktivism and your child’s teddies.
This is also why I feature so many stories of children, some as young as 5, from around the world who are challenging consumerism, businesses, governments. There is very limited reporting on the inspirational stories out there and we need to hear them. I do feel a little bit sheepish sometimes when I read about what these children have achieved.
A good life lesson is that when you challenge the status quo there will always be someone who will tell you ‘it’s too hard’ and ‘what difference can one person make’. To stay motivated your child will need to find a supporter or two – that might be a family member, a friend, a teacher – and you’ll need to inspire them with these children’s stories. For the parent, a ‘zero waste’ or ‘plastic free’ Facebook group (there are many) are a source of positive vibes and good intel.
Seeing us share our thoughts, ideas, opinions and sheer excitement (maybe that’s only me) with others also encourages children to be prepared to talk about their position on something, about the challenges of taking a stand on an issue, the buzz you get from a dose of passion. There are lots of new skills – leadership, communication, social – to be learned along the way too.
Do you have any further tips for teaching children about sustainability?
Get them involved in the changes you’re trying to make in your own life, outside of the home. For example, if you work in an office, you could draw a poster with your child to advertise a proposed leftovers bring ‘n’ share lunch once a week instead of getting take-out lunches in single-use packaging.
Get some turtles, octopi, sharks on there as they are easy to draw and a lot of people watched Blue Planet 2. You could write ‘plastic lasts much longer than your lunchbreak’ in case some people didn’t. Pop it up somewhere everyone might notice it (by the kettle or tap) and be sure to tell your child what your colleagues’ reactions were.
If you could only say one thing to my readers about the importance of teaching sustainability to children it would be:
I would like to quote veteran journalist Lucy Siegle – ‘if you’re looking for the definition of human failure, it is surely bequeathing to future generations a planet trashed beyond repair’. That cycle continues if our children don’t learn to shift their baselines.