Q: I'm looking for an Earth Day project for our after-school club (kids ages 9 through 11). This year's theme is "Climate Change." Depressing! Kids can't really do much about that. Should we just plant trees for Arbor Day?
A: Celebrating Arbor Day (April 26) is a terrific option, especially if kids learn to care for trees and understand their vital role in cooling homes, communities and our planet. Find excellent age-appropriate activities at arborday.org.
But don't avoid this year's theme for Earth Day (April 22). "We can give kids a sense of power about their environment and help them see that our everyday actions impact our environment," says educator Cathryn Berger Kaye, author of "A Kids' Guide to Climate Change and Global Warming" (Free Spirit, 2009). "Some climate change is natural. Earth's climate has cycles and patterns. Temperatures rise and fall. However, most scientists agree that human actions have made these changes bigger and faster. Kids can learn that our actions can also help slow down these changes."
Explain that greenhouse gases build up in the air and make our planet warmer. Carbon dioxide is a common greenhouse gas. "When we burn oil and coal to run cars, factories, electrical plants and farms, we produce a lot of carbon dioxide. Some of it stays in the air and some of it goes into the water," says Kaye. "We can all do our part to reduce greenhouse gases. This is especially urgent because our oceans absorb up to half of the carbon dioxide that we produce. That's too much for our waters."
Build kids' awareness that everyday decisions can have a big impact. Organize your project around activities that promote the idea that every day is Earth Day, suggests Kaye. She offers the following suggestions:
-- Promote walking and bike-riding. Great exercise and no carbon dioxide!
-- Turn off and unplug. Do energy audits at home and school. Where can lights be reduced to save energy and dollars? Teach others to unplug electronics when not in use.
-- Recycle, reduce and reuse. Help others learn how to sort trash. Do a classroom or home inventory to find ways you can use less. Look for ways to reuse items before throwing them away. "For example, want to make clever Earth Day T-shirts? Take used ones, turn them inside out and add your message," suggests Kaye.
-- Compost. Composting reduces waste and greenhouse gases in landfills. A school composting project educates the whole community!
-- Fight litter! It gets into storm drains and into our oceans. "Convince others to tackle litter by staging a play based on the hilarious book 'The Wartville Wizard,'" says Kaye.
-- Spread the word! Kids' words can create a strong ripple effect. In her book "Make a Splash! A Kid's Guide to Protecting Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, and Wetlands (Free Spirit, 2012), Kaye encourages young people to turn their words into persuasive letters and videos to influence others.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)