Every day we should tread lightly upon the Earth,
respecting God’s wonderful creation.
But April 22 – Earth Day – is an excellent opportunity for teachers to engage young people from kindergarten through to age 18 – to teach them what the environment’s multiple crises are, and what they can do about them.
Pope Francis writes in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home): ‘Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet …’ (L.S., #3).
We at EcoPhilly (ecophilly.org) have compiled some interesting and informative activities for Earth Day and beyond.
There are good secular sites (for example, here) but we've tried to give our suggestions a little more Catholic Christian flavor.
Young people who learn to love and respect Nature will be better stewards of the environment - God’s creation. That’s why we lead off with “nature appreciation” activities that pupils of all ages can do. Even here, there is a place for children to learn about
recycling and re-using “stuff.”
Our hope is that you will utilize the ideas listed below and will provide us with feedback and success stories by emailing us at email@example.com so that improvements can be made annually.
Thank you in advance for your time in cultivating a celebration of,
and care for, God's creation.
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Ideas and Activities
Select an item from the menu below to begin exploring Earth Day opportunities.
Nature Scavenger Hunt
Instruct students to make a list of things that they find on a walk in the school grounds, in the neighborhood or by taking a trip to a local park. By ‘things’ we mean trees, birds, squirrels, flower buds, leaves, small creatures under stones, butterflies … anything
alive or once was alive.
Printable Scavenger Hunt Worksheets:
Feel like this is too limited? There is so much to notice!
What about the many different cloud types you’ll see in the sky, and the differently colored rocks and pebbles you encounter? Most of us - at whatever age – are fascinated by these beautiful inanimate objects.
You know where your local park is. But you never know – there might also be a Natural Lands reserve nearby. This organization, based in Media PA, owns over 40 reserves managed specifically for wildlife. Admission is free.
Visit natlands.org to find the closest.
"But my school is just a patch of lawn and nothing else but concrete and pavers!"
Even a school with apparently very little going on in terms of wildlife can be home to interesting plants and animals. Look for ferns and mosses on walls and stones. With permission, dig holes (discreetly!) where there is landscaping, scraping back any mulch and observing what’s uncovered. You could find mushrooms, centipedes, ants, beetle grubs … even the amazing and ugly/beautiful stinkhorns and “dog’s vomit slime mold”! Watch out for ants moving to and fro, perhaps reporting back when they’ve found a dead insect or source of sugar like a candy wrapper or dropped ice cream cone.
There will usually be birds – in Philadelphia, you’ll probably first notice starlings, multicolored rock pigeons and house sparrows. They are all very sociable and sparrows in particular love to fly in groups, twittering loudly as they sort out which of them is the leader and whether or not there are things to eat. There will also be other species – keep your eyes peeled!
Try to get a local birdwatcher to come along with you and share their knowledge.
Cities have more plants and habitat to welcome birds than you realize.
More suburban and rural areas may or may not have more birds – it will depend on how many pesticides have been used and how many native bushes and trees have been left undamaged.
Set up a smart phone with the iNaturalist app – upload photos of any animal or plant material you find and have an expert help you identify it. If you do encounter something living, after photographing it and showing it to the group, don’t forget to put it back where you found it (and cover them up again if they were found hidden under a paving stone or in the soil)
Stuff, and trash...and more stuff!
While exploring, pick up any trash you find - wear gloves and collect the rubbish carefully in sturdy bags. It’s fun ‘un-trashing’ the school neighborhood like this – removing the objects that kids and grown-ups have thrown ‘away’.
Recycle what you can, safely dispose of the rest.
Explain to the kids what reduce, reuse and recycle means. Then show them!
Try some of these activities with your child or students!
1) Make bird feeders from bottles!
2) “Waste” a rainy day in the best possible way by searching for upcycling and recycling tricks on the internet.
3) Watch The Story of Stuff (on YouTube) and get the students to clean out any junk/toy drawers they have at home.
4) Make a pledge to reduce your classroom’s plastic use and get the kids to buy into this as well. Why? Because plastic takes centuries, if ever, to rot down – and can kill seabirds, sea turtles, dolphins and whales. And plastic trash looks just disgusting.
5) Have your students measure their family’s weekly trash output. Do they usually recycle? Which plastics can they recycle?
(Hint: Look for numbers 1, 2 and 5).
6) Make a plan to reduce each student's and teacher’s family’s waste by 25 percent by the end of the school year. Put together a presentation to make to the school and at church (and don't hesitate to ask us for help and ideas)
One of the very best ways to talk about climate change with your students is the YouTube series Global Weirding.
The Christian climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe does a great job at explaining the causes of climate change, the evidence, and common (but mistaken) objections. Search on YouTube using the phrase "Global Weirding."
Energy, Electricity, and Reducing Pollution
Excellent material for lesson plans can be found in this video from the Environmental Protection Agency:
You’ll find lots of these tips will be easily understood by students aged 9+. Oh, and us adults too.
Click on the EcoPhilly ‘Personal Action’ tab.
One very important thing is choosing to use renewable electricity – in other words,
using wind or solar power (say) rather than coal, oil or gas.
Parents and students should know this (papowerswitch.com).
BUT - - the greenest electricity is the electricity you don’t use, so conserve it when you can:
Use LEDs for lighting and turn off the lights when a room is not in use
Use energy saving appliances and run the dishwasher and washing machine only with full loads.
Conserve water and energy – shower for a few minutes less each time
Burning gasoline (driving a car) or coal and oil (making electricity) adds not just carbon dioxide
that affects the climate, but poisonous fumes that affect our health right now.
Soot, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and ground-level ozone make breathing more difficult for all of us,
but especially children with asthma and older people with heart disease.
Wildlife of All Shapes and Sizes
Plan a Wildlife Garden:
If you were disappointed in the wildlife you unearthed on your Nature Scavenger Hunt, then you can do something about it. Before, on, or after April 22nd, start planning a wildlife garden on the grounds.
If done right, it will save on lawnmowing costs, attract birds, butterflies and moths, and generate enough interesting wildlife to spot and study … on Earth Day and every other day.
Where do you start? Visit https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/ and search for NATIVE PLANTS. Choose ones that grow in your ‘planting zone’ and help the biological diversity (biodiversity) of the area.
Have a look at the National Wildlife Federation’s Trees for Wildlife program). It has a very well-run initiative to encourage tree planting. In Philadelphia County, it is unfortunately the case that the poorer the neighborhood, the fewer trees there are. Yet trees offer shade, they help moderate air pollution, they absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide … if they’re native to the US then they act as welcome wagon to dozens and dozens of different animals … and they are beautiful. Contact the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society to ask about their tree planting program!
Learn an incredible amount with this 6-video curriculum about native plants: Philly Seed Pods – An Online Curriculum About Native Plants
Trees have always been important to significant people in the Bible too. Think of Abraham welcoming three heavenly beings near the trees of Mamre (Gen 18:1) and the Tree of Life in Revelation (22:1-2) which gives fruit year-round and whose leaves are used for medicine. Could there be a more accurate allegory for the infinite bounty to be found in African, Asian and American rainforests?
Get some bird feeders – buy some or make some – and then start counting the birds who come to them.
Record your counts in eBird.org . Don’t forget to keep the feeders clean!
Make “Earth art”. See if any of your pupils are inspired by the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy, who is famous for ephemeral art made entirely of natural items.
Learn more about insects, millipedes, woodlice, spiders, bugs, mini-beasts,
creepy-crawlies by visiting https://xerces.org/education.
You’ll also find out how to build native bees a home!
News Flash: for grades 3 - 5, join the X-Kids, a whole activity book on bugs, with lots of things to do. Sounds marvelous - please give us feedback.
God’s creation is almost infinitely and startlingly varied, with millions upon millions of distinct and fascinating animals, plants, fungi, insects, spiders, centipedes, frogs, toads, molds, bacteria, protozoans, viruses … that’s what ‘biodiversity’ means.
But for many really significant animals and plants, future prospects are bleak. Does anyone really want to see tigers, rhinos and elephants go completely extinct in the wild? Yet this is likely to happen. Pangolins, vultures and hornbills may not be as famous, but they are in grave danger too.
‘What can we do? I don’t kill elephants for their ivory, or take medicines made from tiger bones and rhinoceros horn. Or pangolin scales. Let the people who live in Africa and India worry about it.’
Well, they do worry about it. And many of them step up to the plate and work as park rangers and guards.
And they pay the ultimate price of being murdered by poachers who out-gun them. (Read more here and here)
It’s not just the iconic animals that are in danger of extinction.
Insect populations are crashing, and as a consequence, any birds that depend on insects are also drastically falling in numbers.
Seabirds like albatrosses are critically endangered for two reasons: chicks get fed floating plastic rather than edible jellyfish and other parts of a good diet, and diving birds get caught up in fishing nets or swallow baited hooks meant for tuna.
Older students can research in groups and either create posters (which then could be placed in the hallway or entranceway), mini-presentations, or can have a jigsaw activity in order to teach their classmates. :
Research what the evidence is that plastic kills sea creatures
How does our choice of fish to eat make a difference to wildlife? (hint: aquaculture vs. wild-caught)
Which are the main countries responsible for the ivory trade?
What is a helmeted hornbill? How is it like an elephant?
What has happened to vulture populations in Africa and Asia? Why should anyone care?
How can captive breeding of rare mammals, birds and reptiles help stave off extinction? (hint: look up the author and naturalist Gerald Durrell)
What are other people doing to save the wildlife in our common home?
What can you do?
The Church's Ecological History:
Saints and People of Faith:
Creation Care Literature:
Further Site Exploration:
In addition to the ideas above, here are some excellent sites for further exploration:
Through educational programs focused on conservation and environmental knowledge, the National Wildlife Federation provides ways to create a lasting base of environmental literacy, stewardship, and problem-solving skills for today's youth.
Use the Living Planet Report Youth Edition as a scientific resource with your 6th-12th grade students and/or in conjunction with the activities.
Find an array of environmental and science based lesson plans, activities and ideas from EPA, other federal agencies and external organizations.
This short video encourages children to take action regarding climate change, and provides examples of children and teens who have already made a positive impact on the environment.
Special Education Resources:
The book ‘Earth Day for Special Ed’, for elementary classes, is available for download at a very low price. It provides ninety pages of lesson plans, as well as an excellent presentation summarizing in simple terms what Earth Day is all about. Many of the activities, such as the Nature Scavenger Hunt, are just as appropriate for these pupils as mainstreamed children. It is written by Christa Joy, herself a teacher with an autistic son. She also compiled this comprehensive website, which covers a lot of ground, including math, science, art and ELA.
Pollution and Conservation, a set of lesson plans for special ed middle schoolers. This is a fantastic resource – a PDF of 154 pages including presentations, lesson plans and quizzes – again, put together by Christa Joy. There are tasks and activities for a range of abilities, and a very rich content of digital activities and slides. There is a pleasing emphasis on protecting plants – on which after all, we are completely dependent.
Google Classroom resources are also available.