The future of our planet lies in the hands of our children.
But before we pass over the baton, it’s crucial we instill a genuine sense of respect and stewardship for the environment in them.
So how can we do that? How can we teach children about sustainability in a way that’s engaging and understandable? Just what is sustainability for kids?
In teachable terms, sustainability for kids means learning how to take care of the planet, its people, and its resources, so that they can be used for future generations. It involves understanding the impact of human activities on the environment, and finding ways to minimize that impact.
There are a plethora of ways in which we can impart these lessons to kids; one of which is using the power of pop-culture through infotainment.
And this entertainment which is grounded in environmentalism is available through the click of a button. So, if you’re going to pop on the TV for your kid, here’s our list of sustainability-focused children’s media promoting sustainability and encouraging (eventual) action to protect the environment.
Let’s see how they’re doing it and how you as a parent can pick up after the end credits roll.
Exploring And Explaining Sustainability For Kids
Of all sustainability videos for kids, WALL-E is perhaps the most famous and on-the-nose.
This beloved Pixar film tells the story of a loveable robot tasked with cleaning up a polluted and abandoned Earth 700 years in the future.
Through vivid imagery of mountains of trash, it shows the consequences of neglecting the environment and the continual generation of waste without regard for where it must eventually end up.
The spaceship in which the story is set is a symbol of excess and waste; frumpy humans who’ve lost much of their physicality sitting in floating chairs attached to screens, while robots dart back and forth serving them.
By contrast, WALL-E is powered by solar panels and a small power plant that he manages carefully. He’s also the embodiment of environmental stewardship. Throughout the movie, WALL-E is shown planting trees and caring for the environment, in spite of how insignificant the impact of his efforts may be.
WALL-E not only emphasizes the importance of recycling and sustainability for kids, but instills an understanding of the fragility of our planet and the consequences of abusing it.
Microsoft’s ever-popular Minecraft video game may not be the first thing that jumps to mind when you think of sustainability programs for kids, but that’s actually what makes it a subtle yet effective tool for teaching older children about concepts of sustainability.
While the goal of each individual’s Minecraft game is open-ended, the main objective boils down to surviving and thriving in a procedurally generated world by gathering resources, building civilization structures, and exploring the environment.
Because players must rely on the game’s randomly generated environments (which vary drastically across different biomes), they must learn to adapt to and work with the natural world around them to succeed.
Minecraft’s mechanics engage players in three basic sustainability concepts:
- Resource management: Players must gather resources (wood, stone, etc.) to build and survive, many of which are finite in existence or slow to regenerate. This teaches players to use resources wisely.
- Renewable energy: Minecraft includes various renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines. Just as in the real world, incorporating these elements into gameplay reduces resource scarcity and provides players with enormous benefits.
- Sustainable agriculture: Minecraft’s farming system allows players to grow crops and raise animals, but by incorporating sustainable farming practices, like crop rotation and composting, they can do so more efficiently and with greater reward.
Gameplay revolves around advancing without damaging the environment. The lesson in abstract is in simple terms what sustainability seeks to achieve: consciously using the natural world to meet the needs of the present without sacrificing it for the next generation.
3. “Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish”
First published in 1972, Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish is a classic children’s book written and illustrated by Michael Foreman.
The book tells the story of a world where humans have destroyed the environment and wildlife, leaving only a wasteland behind. The main character, an inventor, discovers a way to bring back the dinosaurs, but soon realizes that they too will be destroyed by the pollution and waste left by humans.
A cautionary tale about the dangers of environmental destruction and the importance of protecting the planet for future generations, this book encourages children to think about their impact on the environment and the steps they can take to protect it.
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If you think this classic franchise is too dated to be a part of the eco-conscious parent’s arsenal of sustainability resources for kids, think again.
Reiterated in numerous forms over the decades, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or TMNT) series is a fun and engaging narrative that teaches children not just about self-defense but about sustainability and the environment, highlighting the importance of protecting natural resources, reducing waste, and taking action to address environmental threats.
The turtles’ home, the sewers of New York City, is often threatened by pollution and other environmental hazards. The turtles battle against villains who threaten both their home and the environment through actions like pollution and deforestation.
TMNT also showcases the value of recycling and repurposing. The turtles’ use of discarded items and recycled materials to create their weapons and outfits can help impart in even young kids the importance of waste reduction and responsible resource management—not to mention inspire them to create repurposed TMNT costumes of their own!
5. The Simpsons
Doh! We almost forgot to mention The Simpsons.
While technically classified as adult animation, this ultra long-running series has been enjoyed by people of all ages for nearly four decades.
As anyone who’s seen the show knows, The Simpsons is ultimately a pop culture commentary, using current events and trends as fuel for content. No surprise then that climate change, waste reduction, renewable energy, and other key sustainability issues have been highlighted across the show’s 744 episode (and counting) runtime.
Did we mention the 2007 The Simpsons Movie is yet another piece of climate commentary?
The film begins in the beloved hometown of Springfield which becomes heavily polluted after Homer dumps a silo full of pig excrement into a lake. Environmental devastation follows, including the quarantining of the town to contain the pollution.
While done in the show’s patented hyperbolic way, Homer’s careless actions demonstrate the importance of individual accountability and action in protecting the environment.
In the end, the town comes together to clean up the pollution and restore the environment, illustrating the power of the community to work together to address environmental issues. Overall, The Simpsons provides a humorous, modern, and accessible way to introduce sustainability for kids who are a little bit older, given the more mature themes and elements.
6. We Bare Bears
We Bare Bears is a Cartoon Network show that follows the adventures of three bear brothers named Grizzly, Panda, and Ice Bear who try to integrate into human society.
While the show does not have a central focus on sustainability, it does touch on a few themes related to environmentalism and sustainability, including:
- Recycling: In one episode, the bears start a recycling program in their neighborhood to reduce waste and protect the environment. For young children this emphasizes the importance of responsible waste management and reducing your environmental impact.
- Animal welfare: The bears often interact with and show concern for the well-being of other animals, like rescuing a lost chicken and helping to find a home for a lost dog.
- Sustainable living: The bears try to live sustainably through growing their own food in a community garden or using public transportation instead of driving.
More importantly, the show is a metaphor for peaceful animal and human coexistence. The bears integrating into human society, while maintaining their connection to the natural world.
The narrative can help kids understand the importance of preserving natural habitats and creating spaces where animals can thrive.
7. Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6 is a 2014 futuristic Disney movie about Hiro Hamada and his robot friend, Baymax, as they team up to stop a dangerous villain.
The movie highlights the importance of clean and sustainable technology. The characters use advanced, eco-friendly technology (like solar panels) to power their inventions (which also have a green bent, such as robots programmed to pick up trash on the streets of San Fransoyko where the film takes place). This can help kids understand the importance of using clean energy sources.
The backdrop of the narrative is set against the potential negative impacts from the development of technology. The film’s villain steals and an advanced nanobot technology to repurpose it as a destructive and polluting power.
This juxtaposition illustrates how technological and human advancement has the power to either help or harm the world depending on why it’s used, thus inspiring kids to make the altruistic choice when they inherit the power to do so.
The sci-fi movie Tomorrowland is an allegory that small actions can make a big difference, no matter your size or age
It tells the story of Casey, an optimistic young girl who embarks on a mission to save the future of humanity. By showcasing the power of individual actions, it teaches children that their own actions can make a difference when it comes to protecting the environment.
The movie also touches on the theme of renewable energy. In one scene, Casey meets a character named Athena who explains that the city of Tomorrowland is powered by renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, a not-so-subtle message to kids that the future (AKA Tomorrowland) is in renewable energy.
Most impactful, however, is the visual messaging of environmental degradation. Set in a future world facing catastrophe, the stage, more than the story itself, impresses upon children the potential consequences of neglecting the Earth.
9. FernGully: The Last Rainforest
“Just imagine. Humans back in FernGully.”
“Yup. There goes the neighborhood.”
FernGully: The Last Rainforest is a 1992 cult independent animated movie that tells the story of a group of fairies who work to protect their rainforest home from destruction by humans.
Centered entirely on themes of nature conservation and the destructiveness of human intervention, it provides a very clear (and sometimes scary) picture of what can happen—and is happening—when humans show disregard for the environment.
Specifically, it highlights the devastating effects of deforestation and pollution on the rainforest ecosystem, and encourages kids to take action to protect nature and live in harmony with it, just as the fairies of FernGully do.
10. The Lorax
What’s a conversation about sustainability for kids without Dr. Seuss’s classic children’s novel, The Lorax.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Thus says the Lorax, a small creature that “speaks for the trees”.
The story takes place in a polluted wasteland where a greedy businessman, the Once-ler, has cut down all the Truffula Trees to make a product called “Thneed.”
The Lorax warns the Once-ler about the consequences of his actions, but the Once-ler ignores him. Eventually, the pollution forces all the animals to leave and the Once-ler’s business collapses. The story ends with the Lorax disappearing, leaving behind only the word “Unless”.
In a clear and urgent manner, the story impresses on the importance of conservation, the impact of human greed on the environment, and the value of taking action to protect the planet.
By showing how pollution and deforestation affect not only the trees, but also the animals that depend on them for survival, The Lorax imparts on kids the importance of considering the broader impact of their actions on the environment.
While the ending is less driving into the sunset as it is a warning, its overall “unless” message is an empowering one giving children the knowledge that simply caring for the environment “a whole awful lot” can prevent such a future.
The book was adapted into a feature-length film in 2010 that spread the book’s message to a new, modern audience through an entirely different medium. Of course, having the Lorax voiced by the colorful and charismatic Danny DeVito didn’t hurt!
11. Frozen II
A more modern and trendy sustainability video for kids, Frozen II, is the sequel to the record-breaking Disney Pixar film. Elsa may have “Let it go” in the original, however, the environment isn’t so quick to do so if we continue to abuse it.
One of the key messages in Frozen II is the importance of preserving the natural world; the threat to the magical forest (a metaphor of our planet) is caused by humans damming its river and cutting down trees.
In their adventure to save the forest and their town, Anna, Elsa, Kristoff, and Olaf learn that the balance of nature is delicate and human actions can have lasting environmental impacts.
Frozen II also highlights the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of working together to protect the environment. It underscores the truism that we all have a role to play in preserving the planet.As Anna emotionally sings, “All one can do is the next right thing.“
12. How Do You Teach Kids Sustainability?
You’ve come to “The End” and the film’s credits are rolling—how can you continue to foster the sustainability seeds planted by these movies, television series, games, and books?
Like these pop culture pieces, your own sustainability activities for kids should revolve around the 6 Rs of sustainability.
What are these 6 sustainability words?
Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, rethink, and repair.
You might design activities around these concepts—like having a toy repair and upcycle art session together—but whatever your approach, teaching them can be as simple as intentionally incorporating each one into your daily life and explaining to your kids why.
Start by teaching them about different types of plastic and how to recycle each one. Then teach them about avoiding plastic in favor of more sustainable and reusable materials, which you can do by adopting low waste or eco-friendly living habits yourself.
Here are some more ideas on teaching sustainability to kids:
- Foster a love of nature by ensuring they spend time outside, whether it’s camping or just a daily walk in the park. 50% of children spend less than an hour of outdoor time a day, try not to let them fall into that bucket.
- Plan time outdoors (without screens) so they can observe nature in a way that fosters their curiosity and imagination.
- Teach them to garden. Between planting, composting food waste, and all the insect and micro life that makes it possible, there are infinite opportunities to show kids firsthand how nature works symbiotically and how humans can help it thrive.
- Arrange craft sessions using exclusively recycled or sustainable materials, and use it as an opportunity to explain why they’re more sustainable.
- Set a good example by following sustainable practices yourself. After all, kids learn best by following the example set by their parents, starting at a young age.
- Expose them to planet-positive media like the examples on this list.
No matter how you choose to teach facts on sustainability for kids, keep it fun.
A sustainability definition for kids can be as simple as engaging them with age-appropriate games, crafts, and outdoor activities
Closing Thoughts On Teaching Sustainability To Kids
Pop culture in the right form can be a powerful tool in promoting sustainability and encouraging children to take action to protect the environment.
For better or worse, children are influenced by what they read and see on television.
And we can ensure it’s the former by exposing them to the message that “speaks for the trees” and teaches them the importance of caring for the environment.
In a world where climate change is a pressing issue, it’s never too early to teach kids about what it means to live a sustainable life.
After all, today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders, and the better equipped they are to make responsible decisions the better chance they have to live on a thriving sustainable planet.