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  • Discussing Carbon Footprints with Kids
  • Kristin McLaughlin
  • educationresources
Discussing Carbon Footprints with Kids

The concept of a carbon footprint is complex, and can be difficult to explain to children who are just learning about their world. It is not, however, an idea that exceeds children's ability to understand. Kids can take meaningful steps to save the Earth, but only if they understand what they're changing and why. (This goes for adults, too!)

Awareness around reducing our carbon footprint motivates all of our printing decisions: we keep our carbon footprint as small as possible by printing all of our books locally and using materials that are recycled and recyclable. This Earth Day, we wanted to offer some ways to deepen your little one's understanding of what a carbon footprint really is, and why it's important to take tiny steps to reduce it.

What does 'carbon footprint' even mean?

It all relates back to global warming. The first thing to understand are fossil fuels. These are found deep inside the earth, are made of dead plants and animals, and are millions of years old. More fossil fuels cannot be created, we can only use what is already in the Earth. 

Fossil fuels are used to make things that kids interact with everyday: electricity, plastics, fuel for cars. When fossil fuels are burned to make these things, they release a gas called carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This release of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere causes global warming and air pollution.

When we talk about a 'carbon footprint', we're talking about how much extra carbon dioxide is being released into the atmosphere because of the items you're buying, the way you're commuting, and the way you're using power and electricity. All that extra carbon dioxide is polluting the Earth. The smaller your carbon footprint, the less you're contributing to global warming and air pollution.

What is your carbon footprint?

There are many carbon footprint calculators available online (google "carbon footprint calculator" and you'll be overrun with options), which can give you an idea of what your personal footprint and your family's footprint is. We recommend this one for adults, as it calculates your footprint in terms of a dollar amount, and this one for children, which calculates their footprint in comparison to other kids around the world. 

What can you do?

Within the calculator, areas where you score the highest are places where there may be opportunities to make small but meaningful changes, such as taking more public transportation, using electricity and water more thoughtfully, and avoiding using and purchasing plastics. 

One change that may seem small, but has enormous implications, is buying things that have been created, manufactured, or grown near you whenever possible. This drastically reduces the amount of fossil fuels needed to power whatever shipping method got that item to your home or store, in turn drastically reducing the carbon footprint of your purchase. To give a sense of what a huge amount of pollution we're talking about here, one giant cargo ship transporting items overseas can emit almost the same amount of pollutants into the atmosphere as 50 million cars -- and there are roughly 90,000 cargo ships traveling our world's oceans currently.

How can you share this information with your child?

Map : Have your child pick 5 items in your home and find out where they were made. These items can be anything (clothes, toys, soap, etc.) - the more diverse selection the better. Using a world map, have your child find the place each item was manufactured, and where it is now. What sorts of transportation were used to where it is now? Are there places closer to where you live to get these items?

Discover: Research with your little what types of materials were used to make their favorite toy. Talk about what the materials looked like before being made into a fun thing for them. For instance: plastics are made from oil, paper is made from trees. Which materials can be recycled? If a material can't, how long does it take for it to naturally degrade? (For plastics, it can take between 450 to 1000 years.)

Experiment: Take two balloons and write "local" on one and "imported" on the other. Blow up both balloons fully and talk about all the steps that go into bringing an item to your home with your little one - produce is a good subject for this activity. Let out a little bit of air from each balloon with each step it takes for the food to arrive at your doorstep. Notice how quickly the "imported" balloon will deflate in comparison to the "local".

Paint: Even though carbon dioxide is invisible, it's harmful to the earth. This painting activity is a good way to show how much something that can't be seen still makes a mark. Have your child walk around without shoes on - can they see where they've walked? Gather some paint, a long roll of paper, and paint the bottoms of their feet. Have then walk around (only on the paper this time!) and then see their footprints. Even though we may not directly see how much carbon we emit into the atmosphere, it's there. If your child enjoys the messy foot painting, keep going and make it into an art project!

Eat: If you're lucky enough to be close to farmer's markets or u-pick farms, trips to these can be fun ways to open up the discussion of buying food grown locally. And of course, growing your own food whenever possible is the ultimate lesson in locally grown food!

  • Kristin McLaughlin
  • educationresources

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