How to Support Environmental Literacy and a Whole-Planet Mindset at Home

A toddler removes plastic produce stickers from a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables

At Treehouse Learning, we provide early care and education with the mission of helping the world thrive, and everything in it. We learn, practice, and establish lifelong patterns for caring for our whole brains and minds, our bodies, and the world. Caring for the world encompasses not just the environment and living ecosystems of our incredible Planet Earth, but supporting the connections and relationships between all human systems and all living systems.

In the United States and around the world, ongoing implications of colonization, including White supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism have all served to sever our relationship with the land itself, which has dire implications for both interpersonal human relationships as well as our relationship to the health of our planet. As a program, we look to Indigenous knowledge keepers, thinking patterns, and wisdom to inform of how we conceive of our role in early childhood education within the social structures and systems that exist today, and how we can participate in transformative processes to support a resilient and thriving world. We believe this happens within the context of relationships. We believe that the existence of our world, cultures, and civilization itself necessitate that all humans, especially non-Indigenous people, be in relationship with the land and living world around us, beginning from birth.

With this intention at Treehouse Learning, we developed our BIDES framework, (for Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Sustainability) to weave into all aspects of our program the integration of many different parts. through an educational approach of Whole Brain, Whole People, Whole Planet. We are whole people, each part of an interconnected planet, and no parts of our selves, society, or world are truly separate and distinct. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, even if we “outsource” the effects of our actions to a different part of the planet. Environmental justice is connected to social justice, and emotional intelligence is connected to environmental intelligence. Living systems are all interconnected. We seek to weave the complexities of our interconnectedness into our engagement with children throughout the daily aspects of our program, and from our program outward into the lives of the children, humans, communities, and systems we may impact. 

Building Environmental Literacy in Early Childhood

Throughout the year, our children learn about the seasons, weather, and climate by observing and experiencing it with their five senses and entire bodies. We invite frequent community partners and knowledge-keepers to share with children about topics like pollinators, composting, and where food comes from, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and other nature-based learning explorations which the children then apply to their classroom experiences and bring home to share with their families. Even toddlers learn to separate food scraps for compost from things that go in the landfill, and our older children become engaged and invested gardeners, citizen scientists, and environmental stewards. We take seriously our role in fostering a lifelong planetary perspective and building relationships with the living systems in our world– from the birds that visit the trees around our campus to the chickens eating our food scraps, and the humble worm turning dirt into soil. But by far the most effective way to support lifelong patterns for a healthy planet connect learning experiences between Early Childhood Education centers and home!

Below are a few simple activities that can be done at home with young children that support a whole-planet approach.

Making Ecobricks: Small Solutions for Global Plastic Waste Problems

Ecobricks are a way for children of all ages to use the challenges as learning opportunities, engage in physical activity with a purpose, actively be involved and empowered to solve real-world problems, and develop STEAM skills. Children and adults alike can participate in creatively addressing climate change and plastic waste by repurposing clean, soft single-use plastics (wrappers, bags, straws, styrofoam- anything that is not biodegradable!) into usable materials that are open-ended building materials strong and durable enough to be made into houses. Ecobricks make great modular building blocks that are incredibly durable, easy to clean, and made to last forever (for better or worse). 

This kind of container is ideal, due to its large size and rectangular shape, but Costco offers many products in similar large containers that make great Ecobricks.

As a program, Treehouse Learning collects large, clean containers to construct Ecobricks in order to manually sequester plastic, keep it out of the biosphere, and use it as an open-ended building material that engages children to be part of the solution to the global Plastic Problem. 

Treehouse Learning collects large, clean, plastic containers with screw-on lids to divert plastic waste, food wrappers, and other single-use plastic into something usable. We also encourage families to make Ecobricks at home (and feel free to bring completed Ecobricks to Treehouse Learning for use in our program). Here is a step-by-step tutorial for making an Ecobrick yourself as well as this resource for learning more about Ecobricks, and this guide which also includes a video. Note that finished Ecobricks are incredibly dense, and there is a math opportunity here too to weigh and measure volume in order to ensure a density of 33 g/mL.

At our house, all four of our children plus the adults make Ecobricks from our household plastic waste. This includes the plastic lining of cereal wrappers, pasta, and bags of chips, plastic packaging from Amazon deliveries, and anything else that is clean, soft and flexible, and made out of plastic. It can also include harder plastics to make the brick dense, and we usually cut big pieces into smaller strips to make them easier to stuff (like the bag our coffee beans come in). We use a wooden spoon to stuff down and compact the eco-bricks into whatever containers we have available- the one pictured here was a large container of gelato and the brick-maker is literally only 2.

A toddler stuffs plastic into an Ecobrick made out of household single-use plastic waste

One note- young children obviously need to be supervised making Ecobricks due to the suffocation hazard of soft plastic and bags. For something so ubiquitous and unavoidable, it is quite ironic to consider all of the dangers of plastic– even outside of the suffocation risk, plastic ends up in our oceans, bloodstream and even breast milk.

Hanging birdfeeders and nesting materials at home:

A backyard birdfeeder is an easy and simple way to build a multi-sensory relationship with living things

This year children at Treehouse Learning created a simple Mother’s Day Gift out of a hollow star of woven sticks stuffed with alpaca wool the children dyed themselves with Kool-Aid organized by one of our teachers. The gift is a hanging birdnesting star to be hung outside, where children can spot the brightly colored tufts of wool woven into bird’s nests in their neighborhoods and local surroundings. In our household, we also hang abundant birdfeeders, and our two-year-old continually gasps in awe and wonder to notice the visiting birds. He can distinguish between chickadees, doves, finches, grackles, and magpies spotted from the window, and every time we step outside together, I notice him pause to listen for birds, and point, and share with me what he hears. Regardless of where you live, notice and pay attention to birds with your children! As an activity, noticing birds and their habitats integrates your eyes, ears, and brain, and creates joyful, music-based, and multi-sensory connections to the outdoor world while also supporting mindfulness.

Produce Stickers

Toddlers practice fine motor skills, counting, sorting, and language while removing produce stickers

The proliferation of those pesky produce stickers ending up in compost is one of the reasons the only compost company servicing the Front Range made drastic changes to their acceptance of compostable materials. In our household, we have an engaging routine of removing plastic produce stickers as a learning experience after grocery trips for produce. We will help loosen the stickers and give our 2-year-old the very important job of removing the stickers and sticking them onto a plastic bag no longer food-worthy. The collection of produce stickers itself is another art opportunity to make something new, beautiful, and unexpected out of something we otherwise consider garbage.

Removing the stickers requires fine-motor skills (as well as sticking them onto another surface). This activity also provides an opportunity to sort and classify fruit as stickers are peeled off. We count apples and oranges and bananas and notice the shapes and qualities that are similar and different for different kinds of produce. This supports language development. We name colors and vegetables and make connections between the bell pepper on the counter that he helps prepare with the meal we serve at dinner. 

Food Miles, and where does food come from?

Our 5-year-old also participates in removing produce stickers from vegetables, as well as building a deeper understanding of where food comes from. After trips to the grocery store, we pull out the map placemats and look up the location named on the sticker to see how far the apple traveled to get to our kitchen. Connecting the dots between the pineapple from Costa Rica, the mango from Mexico and the bananas from Guatemala helps her build both literacy and geography skills, in addition to learning about where food comes from. We also connect this to questions about how our food gets to us, including the people who pick the food and the farmers who grow the food. 

Our objective as a family is to build awareness around nutrition, food sovereignty, immigration, regenerative growing practices, local food systems, and building healthy soil. While she is aware that food comes from the grocery store, our lifestyle and culture also often teach children that food comes from “somewhere else,” whether a plastic wrapper that was made in a factory or a take-out container or a drive-through window. We hope that all children build a relationship with the people and places connecting us with our food, whether that means personally thanking Mary and Ari for cooking lunch at Treehouse Learning, imagining the migrant farm workers who might have picked the strawberries served on cereal, or engaging with real food directly in our own household by washing, de-stickering, and cutting vegetables for dinner.

A 5-year-old can build awareness of where food comes from as well as the systems and processes that connect us to what we eat

Gardening and Growing Food and Flowers at Home

In our family, cooking is a whole-family affair, and our entire family is usually involved in our food prep. We are fortunate enough to have a large outdoor garden, and space in our basement to start seeds for our veggie garden. At Treehouse Learning, our children start seeds and plant classroom herb, flower, and vegetable gardens, and our 5-year-old continues this experience at home by participating in planting seeds, including wildflower seeds for a pollinator garden in our backyard.  We encourage all of our families to find ways to garden with children, even if it is as simple as caring for a potted plant!  

Toddlers can get involved too! Even our 2-year-old observed us starting the seeds, and we put language and names to the sprouting plant starts in various stages of growth. We have large containers on our patio of easy-to-grow kitchen herbs like basil and mint, and we teach him how to harvest basil leaves to put on homemade pizza for dinner. 

Though gardening with toddlers inherently runs the risk of plants being pulled up, we model caring for plants gently. When something does get uprooted, we also keep that in perspective- he’s still grasping the concepts of cause-and-effect, and simply doing what any curious young child exploring the world should do- investigating, observing, and testing hypotheses. Still, we encourage him to use his senses to explore kitchen herbs and their various tastes and smells. 

Support a Whole-Planet Mindset at Home

Building relationships with the land and living systems is possible even within the constraints of a culture that often keeps us separated and disconnected from the land. We believe that meaningful transformation in the world begins with individual actions, which compound, build, and gain momentum. Though addressing the climate issues facing our world often feels daunting and discouraging, we encourage all families to engage in small and simple ways or start from where they are. Not only are there easy and manageable ways to cultivate a whole-planet mindset with children, but it is also our relationships with children that allow these actions engaging with the living world to be meaningful and transformative.

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