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Honoring Earth Day through the Sustainable Development Goals

Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a day of education surrounding environmental issues. At that time, nobody was talking about climate change; rather, the concerns were about oil spills, air pollution, and pesticides that were threatening wildlife.

That first celebration of the earth was a success. On April 22, 1970, people of all ages began to engage with activism which has since evolved into the modern environmental movement. By the end of that year, the Environmental Protection Agency had been formed, and important legislation like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act had been passed.

Nearly half a century later, the world is both different and remarkably similar. As on that first Earth Day, we still have the ability to change our behavior, spread the word about protecting our planet, and make an impact. On the 22nd day of April each year, Earth Day is observed around the globe and in many places, the celebration lasts for days.

Earth Day’s objectives are closely aligned with many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The holiday can be an ideal way to get students engaged with the SDGs, particularly those focused on sustainability, like goals 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15. Those goals examine clean water, clean energy, sustainable communities, responsible consumption, climate action, protecting bodies of water, and taking care of everything on land—all of which align perfectly with the purpose and point of Earth Day.

Here are a few easy ways your classroom can engage with the SDGs and make a positive impact on the environment this Earth Day.

Minimize waste

Get a compost bin: Start a compost bin where students can deposit food scraps from lunch and snacks, and spend a week adding dry materials like leaves or torn newspaper, stirring it, and watching as the scraps break down. Donate the compost contents to a community garden or the school garden, or get connected with a compost pickup service.

Have a recycling competition: Talk to students about why it’s important to cut down on the amount of waste in landfills, and describe what does and doesn’t belong in a recycling bin. Then partner with a nearby classroom or a neighboring school to see who can recycle the most materials in a week.

Repurpose recyclables into art projects: Using “trash” like plastic water bottles, newspapers, egg cartons, bottle caps, and other items, give students assignments to make collages—or to create things like toy cars or dolls! Watch their creativity blossom when they’re invited to innovate.

Encourage reusables: Talk to kids, and then their parents, about packing students’ lunches in reusable containers and their beverages in reusable bottles to help reduce waste.

Tend to the earth

Make a bird feeder: Begin noticing the wildlife in your area. Take students outside in the morning, and pay attention to birds nearby; if possible, note their colors and their calls. Then, back inside, have students cover pinecones in peanut butter and birdseed. Hang the bird feeders outside the classroom so students can watch the birds enjoy their snack. Notice again which birds are coming: how many different kinds of birds can the students spot?

Begin gardening: Start a classroom garden or schoolwide gardening club. Students will love watching their seeds grow into plants!

Start a worm composting bin: It’s not as yucky as it sounds. After an initial purchase of wriggly worms (hundreds of them), all you need is a plastic bin, shredded newspaper, and food scraps. Then the worms go to work, showing students in real time just how food can be turned back into soil in just a few weeks.

Keep the earth clean: Give everyone a bag and schedule thirty minutes for students to pick up trash from sidewalks around the school. Compete with other classes to see who can get the most!

Conserve resources

Getting around: Talk about alternative forms of transportation and why it’s important to drive less when possible. Have students tally how many car trips their families make every week, and then examine whether any of those trips could be combined or replaced by walking, biking, or taking the bus.

Think local: Eating food that’s grown locally benefits the community and cuts down on the amount of greenhouse gases used in transport. To help students understand where food comes from, bring in some produce from a local farmers’ market and talk about how it was grown. Or invite a local farmer to come in and discuss how fruits and vegetables grow during different seasons.

Create eco-friendly cleaning products: Toxic ingredients aren’t necessary to keep a home clean; show students that cleaning products don’t need to come with warning labels. With recipes downloaded from the internet that use basic household ingredients like baking soda or vinegar, make simple cleaning products that students can take home—in recycled bottles, of course!

Save energy: Have each student create a unique, colorful sign to hang near light switches in their homes that remind residents to turn off the lights when they leave the room.

Earth Day, every day

If these suggestions don’t seem like a good fit, come up with your own! There are many ways to use Earth Day and the SDGs to encourage students to think about the natural world and how we can take better care of it.

While Earth Day is only one day of the year, we should honor and nurture our planet every day. After all, as the poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry said, “The earth is what we all have in common.” And we all have the responsibility to protect it.

For more SDG resources, visit our global education resources page and blog.

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