By Karina Kinik
Last spring Michelle Obama and local schoolchildren broke ground on an "organic" White House garden — which, it turns out, isn't truly organic because sludge-based fertilizer was used during previous administrations — as part of a healthy eating campaign. Follow the first lady's lead and plant an edible garden in your own backyard: Your kids will develop a deeper appreciation of where their food comes from and may even learn to love broccoli. If you live in an apartment building or don't have a yard, grow herbs and vegetables indoors or join a community garden. For more resources, check out KidsGardening.org and the American Community Gardening Association's website.
Mealtimes are a chance to provide nutritious food not only for your family but also your yard or garden. Instead of tossing veggie peels, eggshells, and coffee grounds in the trash, have your children put them an indoor or outdoor compost bin, which when properly maintained produces nutrient-rich and (even more important) odorless fertilizer. Learn what's safe to compost and how to make your own bin at the EPA's composting guide and You Grow Girl. Do your kids love creepy-crawlies? Try vermicomposting, in which hungry worms accelerate the fertilizing process, and let them feed the red wrigglers.
Photo credit: looseends
Reduce, reuse, and recycle, that is. Following those waste-management rules can significantly decrease the amount of trash your family generates (no small feat considering the average American produces more than four pounds per day). Teach your kids to be litter-literate by showing them how to separate recyclables — aluminum cans, bottles, magazines, plastic containers, etc. — from the regular garbage and place them in designated bins. Don't have a curbside pickup program in your community? Go to earth911.com and search for local recycling centers. The site also provides guidelines on properly disposing of such household items as used cooking oil and old electronics.
Sound scary? They are when you realize that some appliances keep drinking up electricity when they're turned off, known as vampire or standby power. According to the EPA, the average U.S. household spends $100 annually to power devices while they're in standby mode. Luckily ridding your home of such e-wasters doesn't involve garlic wreaths, wooden stakes, or the never-ending Twilight saga. Just remind your kids to unplug TVs, computers, and stereos (or switch off power strips) when not in use, and tell them they're energy vampire slayers — sure to sound impressive. And don't forget to unplug chargers when they're done juicing up cell phones and cameras: Chargers consume power even when they're not connected to gadgets. Your children can learn more energy-saving tips at the EPA's Energy Star Kids site.
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Your parents may have nagged you about many things when you were young, but they were right about at least one: Turn off the lights when you leave a room. You'll save electricity and money, depending on the type of lighting, while setting an eco-friendly example for your kids. Replace all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones — which are generally OK to leave on if you'll be gone for less than 15 minutes — and your home will be even more energy efficient. (Be careful when removing burned-out fluorescents because they contain trace amounts of mercury; see these Energy Star guidelines for safely disposing of them.)
Photo credit: Dano
Water covers 70% of the blue planet, but that doesn't mean we should take it for granted. Encourage your children to conserve this precious resource by taking shorter showers — under five minutes is ideal — and not leaving the tap on when brushing their teeth or washing dishes. Boost your household's water savings even more by installing low-flow toilets, showerheads, and faucet aerators — the right showerhead, for example, could save more than 2,300 gallons per year. For more ideas, visit the EPA's WaterSense Kids site and H2ouse.org, which provides room-by-room water-conservation tips.
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik
Can you keep a clean house and still be green? Yes, by avoiding products laden with phthalates, glycol ethers, and other chemicals linked to respiratory and reproductive disorders and sticking with nontoxic household staples like baking soda, borax, lemon juice, and white vinegar (which are also cheaper than store-brand cleaners). Play eco-chemist with your children by following the safe, easy recipes from such sites as Planet Green, Eco-Cycle, and National Geographic's Green Guide — and don't forget to ask them to pitch in with the wiping, scrubbing, and mopping.
If you've got mini-fashionistas or designers on your hands, take a chic cue from Project Runway's retro-inspired creations by buying them secondhand clothes, which are less resource intensive than new duds (and often cheaper and better made). Or put away your pocketbook and organize clothing swaps with neighbors and friends — you'll keep no-longer-trendy items out of the landfill and make hand-me-downs hip for the next generation. Get more tips for planet-friendly kids' clothes from the Daily Green.
Perhaps the easiest way to raise planet protectors is also the most obvious one: Get outdoors. Plan nature walks, play in parks, organize picnics, and go for bike rides — your kids will be more likely to respect the environment as adults if they have fond memories of the creeks, trails, and woods they explored when they were young. (See what Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, has to say about the "no child left inside" movement.) Plus spending time in nature could make your kids smarter: A 2005 study sponsored by the Sierra Club and released by the California Department of Education found that students in outdoor classrooms improved their science test scores by 27%.
To make a bigger eco-impact in your community, sign up with your kids for environmental service projects. On Serve.gov and VolunteerMatch, you can search for opportunities by location and area of interest or keyword. Celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22) by taking part in campaigns and events in your area. Global Youth Service Day (April 23 to 25, 2010) mobilizes young people ages 5 to 25 to participate in projects ranging from shoreline cleanups to community garden research. Or look up your local 4-H program and the 4-H Science, Engineering, and Technology initiative.