When Kids Take The Lead: Nature Clean-Ups

Andrew, age 9, leads other kids cleaning up a river in Georgia. Photo by Inga Lim

How much do kids care about nature? An awful lot and much more than we adults give them credit for. Last week my friend Inga emailed me from Georgia (not the US one) to tell me about her son: “We were visiting another beautiful place they call canyon the other day, and the swimming hole and the river banks were littered pretty badly. I felt very proud of Andrew, when he organized all the kids in our party and collected a big plastic bag of garbage. Locals considered him nuts, but he was very determined. (then demanded chewing gum as a reward ;-)).”

Never mind the chewing gum Andrew, what you did was really cool. For those of you who haven’t met him, Andrew is only 9 years old and he took it upon himself to organize a kid-only cleaning crew without adult supervision. Then, locals made fun of him yet Andrew kept on going. How’s that for brave? I’ve known Andrew since he was a preschooler and like his mom, I’m pretty darn proud of him. Inspired by what he did, I’d like to share my experience in nature clean-ups with kids so you too can organize one.

How To: Trail Trash Scavenger Hunts

In the gamut of environmental awareness projects, this is by far my favorite trail activity with kids because it is both an I-spy game and a wake-up call. While it’s one thing to hear that people leave trash in nature, it’s quite another to pick up a bag of Cheetos in a bush, candy wrappers flying with the wind in tall grasses or plastic bottle caps in the sand. After a morning of nature clean-up, kids suddenly realize that Sunday picnics or afternoons in the park can leave unintended consequences behind – and that they can help solve the problem. By lending a hand, they are empowered to be respectful of their environment.

What You Need

I like to organize this activity when I have a small group of children and at least 20 minutes of free time. Since the only skill required is the ability to bend down and pick up a light item, all children who can walk sturdily can partake in the activity, provided they wear closed-toe shoes. To get started, you need a bag that will serve as a trash can. I usually carry empty shopping bags in my backpack “just in case” but if I don’t have one, it’s sadly easy to find discarded plastic bags or ziploc bags that can be used as containers on the trail. I walk ahead of the kids and show them how to spot and collect the first dozen pieces. Then they’re on their own.

Instructions and Safety

The rules are simple. Kids are free to collect any sizable piece of trash they see and they should focus on plastic (shiny things). As far as safety, I draw the line at sharp objects or environments that could get the kids hurt. Kids are asked to leave alone the following: broken glass, metal, syringes. If I can, I’ll help them get it but I don’t let kids handle these with their bare hands. Likewise, kids should steer clear of thorny bushes or toxic plants like poison oak.

The Down and Dirty Bit

In case you wondered, yes kids will get dirty – or at least their hands will. Short of carrying latex gloves or tongs to pick up trash from afar, I always advocate a thorough hand-washing at the end of the activity and a dollop of antibacterial gel in between.

The Loot

Ah the wonderful unappetizing things we’ve found on the trail. Here’s a best-of:

  • Worst offenders: cigarette butts, snack bags, candy wrappers, plastic bottles, beer or soda cans, beer bottle metal lids, bottle caps.
  • For the young’uns: hold on to your pacifiers kids! All right, not just the pacifiers. We’ve found a good share of sippy cups, right foot shoes, socks, sun hats and toys.
  • For the anglers: on lake shores, it’s quite common to find tangled fishing lines but you can also find fishing hooks and weights in bushes, trees or in the grass. Fishing poles would be a good perk and we’ve only found one in Fresno county.
  • Food in various states of decomposition: why do people assume orange peel decomposes easily? It doesn’t! Besides orange or clementine peels, common trail foods include half-eaten sandwiches, pistachio or peanut shellls, chips, hard-boiled egg shells and banana peels. Yum!
  • Things that shouldn’t be there: sometimes you got to wonder. What are people thinking? We’ve found broken umbrellas, lone sneakers, dirty underwear, dirty diapers and acres of tissue paper that’s been used to wipe people’s butts. Honestly, just writing it gives me shivers. What’s wrong with “Pack It Out”?

Show and Tell

After an hour or so of trash collection, the adults around you get tired of walking slowly and the kids are ready to move on to something else. It’s time for show-and-tell! Open the bag, show the loot and go “ooooh” and “aaah” all you want. All the things you’ve picked up won’t end up in the undergrowth of a forest or the digestive tract of a sea bird. I’m not even talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Reward

Besides that intense feeling of satisfaction for doing good, kids like a small reward to mark the day that they made a difference. I always, always pick small keepsakes for are NOT made out of plastic. Easier said than done, let me explain. Most of the times, I’ve organized these clean-up activities in state parks and the closest store around was the park store. Now try going to any park store and check out the kid section. See all the plastic toys? Unless you are visiting a historical state park, the toys are almost 100% plastic and maybe wood if you’re lucky. There might be other things but who needs another stuffed animal or another pair of plastic binoculars? I usually settle on “practical” items such as pencils, small nature guides, notebooks, activity books, postcards or stones. If you’re a state park store manager, please stock more small items that are not made out of plastic for kids. I will be immensely grateful.

Playing the Impromptu Card

Two days ago I took my girls to the beach. While splashing in the waves, I noticed an empty plastic bottle and a soda can half-buried in the sand. “A second beach trip tomorrow to the girl who brings me back a piece of trash!” I announced. My girls bolted at once and brought me back the culprits. On the way back to the car, my 7-year old and I kept finding more plastic stuff and by the time we reached the parking lot, we each had our two hands full with trash. Fortunately, there was a trash can so we could empty our hands. “Well done Maman,” said my little girl who climbed in the car very happy. She’s now come to accept this ritual as a normal fact of life because “Its unfair for Nature” otherwise. And she’s right. Nature is for all of us.

I’m proud of kids like Andrew, my girls and all the little trail helpers I’ve seen. If they grow in numbers, things can only improve. More than ever, every little bit helps.

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

2 Responses to “When Kids Take The Lead: Nature Clean-Ups”

  1. November 28, 2012 at 10:02 am, Cortney said:

    Awesome post! What is the appropriate age to start getting kids involved with clean ups?


    • December 05, 2012 at 3:21 am, Frog Mom said:

      Hello Cortney, I’ve seen toddlers and preschoolers participate in clean-ups and I’ve certainly encouraged my girls since they were able to walk comfortably on a trail. I’d say maybe 3 years would be a good start but 5 years for sure? Earlier than that children tend to do their own thing on the trail. Whatever the age, you can never start too early to teach nature stewardship.



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