Level 2+: Recycling + Conservation

No doubt your child loves nature—and has really loved learning more about parts of it through our unit studies! But much of the beautiful world around us has come under attack due to pollution, climate change, and more. In this science-heavy unit, we’ll take a look at what happens when we don’t care for the earth and see how even the smallest person can make a difference for the planet. Ready to start? Click here to download your skills tracker first.

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Optional additional book:

  • Old Enough to Save the Planet by Loll Kirby – If your child ever feels too small or young to make a difference, this book filled with inspiring true stories of kids from around the world who are protecting the planet.

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight the phonogram EI. (This phonogram is connected to the CEI phonogram we covered in our Russia Unit, so now would be a great time to help reinforce that lesson as well.)

Lesson 1:

What is pollution…and why is it so bad? Why is trash a problem for our earth? And how can recycling help? For our first day of our unit, we’ll strive to give your child a more concrete overview of these topics that they may have heard about but not fully understand. We’ll begin with the book What a Waste: Trash, Recycling, and Protecting our Planet (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: Pollution is the introduction of harmful materials into the environment. These harmful materials are called pollutants. (source) Sometimes these pollutants are introduced by humans littering, or deliberately dropping trash and other harmful materials into the environment, but sometimes pollution is the result of the way we live. For example, you might not think there is anything wrong with throwing away your garbage in a trash can, but there are some materials that are actually more problematic in a landfill than they would be if they were disposed of another way. Let’s learn more about what happens to organic materials (like food waste) when it ends up in a landfill with this experiment.

Activity 2: So…what’s the problem with all those gases being released into the atmosphere? A little thing called the Greenhouse Effect. The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when gases in Earth’s atmosphere trap the Sun’s heat. This process makes Earth much warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is one of the things that makes Earth a comfortable place to live. Learn more about it in this video. You can also read more about the effect human activities have on these important gases on this page.

Now let’s bring it to life with this experiment.
(-) You can create a simpler version of a greenhouse with this tutorial.

Activity 3: In little and big ways, we all can have an impact on our planet. The effect that we have on the environment and the planet is also called our carbon footprint. A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. (source) While we all do things that negatively impact the environment at times, we can also work to balance out these actions with things that positively affect the planet. Let’s identify some of the actions we take that negatively and positively affect our carbon footprint with a carbon footprint poster craft. 

Start with a large piece of cardstock or poster board. Use an inkpad or paint to have your child create a footprint in the middle of the paper. Next, have them write “My Carbon Footprint” across the top. On the left side of the paper, have them write a list of things they do (or your family does) that contribute to the creation of excess greenhouse gases. Some examples might be:

  • Driving a car – burning fuel (gasoline)
  • Flying in a plane – burning fuel (jet fuel)
  • Wasting energy in the house – burning fuel (natural gas/coal/nuclear energy)
  • Buying imported food – food that travels great distances burns fuel (gasoline/jet fuel)
  • Buying non-organic food – pesticide production and transportation burn fuel
  • Using inefficient lights – burning fuel (natural gas/coal/nuclear energy)
  • Wasting water at home – cleaning water uses fuel (natural gas/coal/nuclear energy)

On the right side of the footprint, create a list of the things you do that help offset greenhouse gas emissions. Some examples might be:

  • Carpooling
  • Turning off the lights when you leave a room
  • Not wasting water/using energy efficient appliances
  • Biking or walking when you can
  • Recycling and reusing paper
  • Turning off the computer when it isn’t being used
  • Not wasting food and eating locally and in season
  • Composting

After creating both sides of your poster, discuss the impact your family is having. Are there ways you could shorten your left side list and lengthen your right side list? You may also wish to create a family goal that you write on the bottom of the poster.

Curious about your family’s actual impact? This calculator can help you learn more.

Lesson 2:

All that extra carbon dioxide and pollution has an effect on our oceans as well! In today’s activities, we’ll focus on ways we can protect our beautiful waterways, beginning with the book The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (or listen to this read aloud)

Activity 1: There are many natural ways our planet tries to balance excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Plants help with this a lot, as does the ocean. Unfortunately, the increased carbon dioxide in the ocean changes the water, making it more acidic. This is called ocean acidification.

More acidic water can be harmful to many ocean creatures, such as certain shellfish and coral. Warming oceans—from too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—can also be harmful to these organisms. Warmer waters are a main cause of coral bleaching. (source)

Now let’s do this ocean acidification experiment to bring it to life for your child.
(-) Working with a younger child? This ocean cleanup sensory bin can be helpful to explain the many ways the oceans need our help.

Activity 2: It’s not just oceans that are affected by pollution—other bodies of water can be impacted, too. For example, ponds, rivers , land lakes naturally grow a certain amount of algae for a healthy ecosystem. However, certain pollutants can affect the growth of algae. Phosphorus is one of the most important nutrients for plant growth, but if too much phosphorus makes its way into a pond, river, or lake, it can cause the algae and other aquatic plants to explode in growth. They use up all the oxygen in the water and suffocate out other life forms like frogs and fish.

Acid rain and fertilizer runoff from farms is another problematic pollutant. If the pH level is outside of the normal range in water, then it kills off the algae and other living things. (source)

To bring this to life, let’s conduct this experiment to see how these added chemicals affect the growth of plants in pond water. (Please note the safety notes in the experiment, and never mix chemicals!)

Activity 3: Not only does pollution in waterways affect us, it also affects the creatures naturally found there. In some cases, pollution and destruction of habitat has also caused animals to become endangered and even extinct. Here is a list of 10 ocean and marine animals that are currently endangered. After reading through the list, let your child choose one that most interests them (or you can do additional research to find other threatened species) and create a lapbook about that animal. Include details like:

  • what type of animal it is (mammal, fish, reptile, etc.)
  • what it eats
  • where it lives
  • why it is threatened
  • how many are left in the wild
  • any other information that your child finds interesting!
Lesson 3:

One way to cut down on the amount of trash and pollution that ends up in landfills is by recycling! But what is recycling? We’ll learn more about recycling in today’s activities. Let’s begin with the book The Mess that We Made (or listen to this read aloud).

Activity 1: Recycling is a great way to cut down on the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills, but sometimes items we attempt to recycle don’t actually get disposed of that way because they weren’t properly sorted. And the sorting rules can vary by state, city, and even neighborhood! For this activity, we’ll practice sorting potentially recyclable materials. Begin by printing these sheets and cutting out each bin and the item cards. Cut out the white trapezoid on the bins (to create a slot) and then glue the bins onto toilet paper rolls to stand them up. You can either choose to create all of the bins, or only those that correspond with your local recycling options.

Next, discuss some of the rules around recyclables! Here are some basics, but feel free to update to reflect your local rules:

Plastic recyclables: The most commonly recycled plastics are water bottles, plastic trays, milk cartons, shampoo bottles, and food packages (like butter tubs). (source) Other potential recyclable plastics are caps to bottles and cartons and many food and beverage containers, like yogurt cups (as long as they are rinsed of food residue first). Whether or not a plastic can be recycled is determined by it’s number, which you can learn more about here.

Metal recyclables: Almost all metals can be recycled (lead, mercury, and other toxic or radioactive metals are the exception), but the most common options are cans from food and beverages (once they are cleaned). (source)

Glass recyclables: Food and beverage clear, blue, brown, and green bottles and jars can be recycled, if clean. Caps should be sorted separately. (source)

Paper recyclables: Acceptable items include newspapers, magazines, catalogs, computer paper, junk mail, cereal, cracker, pasta, shoe boxes, gift boxes other paperboard boxes and paper bags. Corrugated cardboard boxes need to be flattened. Laminated or coated papers, like ice cream containers and receipts are typically not accepted. (source)

Electronic recyclables: Almost all types of common electronics can be at least partially recycled, since they’re made largely of metal. Cell phones, computers, tablets, printers, scanners, televisions, cameras, audio and video equipment, power tools, lamps and appliances such as microwaves, toasters and ovens are all generally recyclable. (source) In many areas, recycling of electronics and batteries is handled by a separate recycling facility or program, so look up what to do in your city.

Compostable items: Raw, organic “brown and green” (AKA, nonanimal) materials are best for composting. Click here to learn more about what can be composted.

Non-recyclable options: There are a variety of items that cannot be recycled, but generally these include hazardous and toxic items (such as batteries, chemicals, or propane tanks), food-stained items, “tanglers” (or any long, rope-like objects that could get tangled in processing equipment), loose plastic bags, and diapers. You can learn more about what types of items generally can’t be recycled without a special program here. If you need to dispose of these items, look up your local regulations for doing so.

Activity 2: Let’s take a look at our own waste and recycling habits! For the next week, have your child keep a record of the recyclable materials your family produces. At the end of the week, create a chart of how many of each type of item to see what type of waste you create the most and the least of.

Activity 3: How does recycling work? In general, recycled materials can be broken down and used to create new materials. Let’s get a taste of this with this recycled seed paper craft that you can even give as a gift!

Activity 4: As we learned in lesson 1, food waste can be very problematic for the environment. The good news is that many food scraps you might typically throw away can actually be regrown into more food! Learn how in this post. If possible, set up your own scrap garden, measuring and charting the growth of what you use. (Tip: Green onions and romaine lettuce are some of the easiest foods to regrow!)

Lesson 4:

An important part of conservation is protecting key species that make a huge difference in their ecosystems. One example of a crucial species is bees! These important pollinators are essential for a healthy environment, and they play an incredibly important role in food production around the world. Let’s learn more about these awesome animals in today’s lessons, starting by reading The Bee Book, or whatever book about bees you own or were able to find at your library. You can also watch this short video to learn more.

Activity 1: Let’s bring what we’ve read to life by learning more about a bee’s anatomy and the types of bees you find in a hive. Begin by printing these pages. Use the first two pages for some copywork, and/or use the labeled picture to build your own bee out of modeling clay (or you could make salt dough with this recipe) and toothpicks.

With the second sheet, review the differences between the types of honey bees with the information found in the book (or you can read through the information on this page).

Activity 2: Let’s do a little hands-on 10 frame work, using bees as our inspiration! You can either use a 10-cube ice tray (like this) or print this paper version. (Or you can reuse a 10 frame printable from a past unit.) For your manipulatives, you can use yellow pom poms, beads, Honeycomb cereal, or even water dyed with yellow food coloring (for filling up the ice tray).

Once you’re set up, have your child pretend to be a bee filling up their hive with honey! Give them different equations, practicing addition and subtraction in a concrete way. To practice with bigger numbers, print a second 10 frame sheet.

Activity 3: One way to help out bees in your area is by making a bee habitat—and it’s easier than you might think. To make yours, you will need a clean, empty tin can (like a soup can), a hammer and nail, twine or string, and dried bamboo pieces. Optionally, your child can also paint the outside of the can prior to hanging.

To create the habitat, use the hammer and nail to create two holes on one side of the can. String the twine through these holes to create a sort of handle that can be used to hang the can. Next, fill the can with enough bamboo pieces to create a snug fit.

Don’t forget to put it out in your yard when the weather is warm enough.

Activity 4: Need a little gross motor activity for the day? Have a bee relay! You’ll need an eye dropper, an empty ice tray, and a cup of water with a bit of yellow food coloring for each child playing. Put the ice trays in the middle of your play space (or yard) and put each person’s cup about 10 feet away in opposite directions. Give each child an eye dropper, and shout GO! The first person to fill all their ice cube slots with “honey” wins!

Lesson 5:

Another important way to cut down on waste is by reusing items in new ways! Let’s read the real-life story of a woman who did just that, helping to cut down on litter for her whole community in the book One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia (or read it here on OpenLibrary)

Activity 1: Would your child like to make their own craft reusing a plastic bag? Try these plastic bag bracelets!

Activity 2: One reason why plastic waste is especially problematic for the environment is that it takes a very long time to break down, or decompose. A material that is biodegradable is one with the ability to get disintegrated (decomposed) by the action of micro-organisms such as bacteria or fungi biological (with or without oxygen) while getting assimilated into the natural environment. (source) You can share with your child how long it takes for many common materials to biodegrade in the chart on this page.

Let’s learn more about decomposition and biodegradable materials by setting up our own mini landfills. Give your child a large plastic container with a lid, large craft sticks, and about 2 inches of soil from outside (do not buy the store soil. Next, choose 5 materials to put in your soil. Choices could include aluminum cans (such as a soda can), baby food jars and other small glass containers, small plastic materials (such as small plastic bottle caps, plastic rings, small plastic lids, etc.), egg shells, potato peelings, banana peels, Styrofoam, strips of fabric, cardboard pieces, old leaves, other pieces of fruit, coffee grounds, tea bags, etc. Use what you have on-hand, making sure to use a combination of things that will break down and those that won’t.

Bury each item (as much as possible) in a different section of the bin, using a labeled craft stick to mark each item’s location. Moisten the whole container with a spray bottle of water and cover. Check the container to stir and examine each section two times a week for about four weeks and record any changes (odors, organisms, decay amount). This is a long-term project, and it can even be extended to the end of the year (and beyond) to see the BIG differences.

Activity 3: Plastics play a big role in much of our lives. Common plastic is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel which is nonrenewable.

Nonrenewable resources are made naturally by the earth, but do not renew themselves fast enough to be able to count on having the resource for an indefinite period time. Some resources are considered non-renewable because our access to the resource is limited. For example, glass and metal are non-renewable resources. The elements and minerals used to make glass and metal are found in the structure of the earth’s crust, however we are limited to what we can access through mining.

Renewable resources are either naturally reproduced at a sustainable rate or they can be produced in agriculture at a rate equivalent to the demand or need. For example, corn can be used for ethanol fuel and to produce corn oil. Corn is a renewable resource. (source)

In an effort to create biodegradable plastics, some manufacturers have begun producing bioplastics from renewable resources. Let’s learn more about these and how to make them in this activity.

After making your bioplastic, add a piece of it to your mini landfill to see how it breaks down over time!

Activity 4: Isatou Ceesay helped her community (and the planet!) by looking at what her neighbors produced as waste and finding way to repurpose it. Could you do that for your own family? Look at the recycled waste chart you made in Lesson 3 to see what type of recyclable waste your family most commonly uses. Next, brainstorm ways you could reuse those items! You can also look at this list for recycled craft ideas.

Optional field trip idea: Does your community have a recycling center? Reach out and see if your family (and potentially other homeschool families you know) could take a tour to see how it works!

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.