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Celebrate Earth Day by Teaching Kids to Make a Difference

By Danielle Mahoney on April 19, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5

As we approach Earth Day, this Friday, April 22nd, join me in educating students on the impact we have on our environment with a Promethean flip chart and some powerful photographs of animals in trouble. And get your markers and crayons ready so your students can create posters that will educate others about why we all need to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Hooray for Earth Day! 

(I must warn you. Some of the images in this post are heartbreaking and difficult to look at.)


What Motivates Me to Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to clean out the lake at Flushing Meadows Corona Park with volunteers from New York Cares, an organization I love and continue to work with. I saw the impact trash has on our environment firsthand. And it wasn't pretty. 

Here's a photo of me on Hands On New York Day in 2007, removing trash from the lake. Yuck!


We found discarded BBQ grills, bottles, plastic bags, and much, much, more.


Sadly, we came across this turtle, dead among the trash. 


When you live in big city, it's very easy to forget that there is wildlife close by. The cleanup at the park put things into perspective for me, and I realized that my students were probably unaware that they live so close to places where animals make their homes. Inspired by my own experiences, I created a simple Promethean flip chart, Earth Day: Our Impact on the Environment, to help students understand the importance of reducing, reusing, and recycling. If you use Promethean software, simply download the flip chart and follow the lesson ideas in this post. Not using SMART technology? No worries! Just click on the images below to conduct this lesson in your classroom or use this  PowerPoint version.


The flip chart and this post contain images of animals who have been harmed by plastic in their environment. Some of the photographs may be difficult to look at. Please remember to deal with this subject in a sensitive manner and prepare your students for what they are about to see. When I recently conducted this lesson with a mature group of 3rd graders, I began by telling them to think about themselves as super smart scientists who are learning about an important topic. If you handle the subject matter with respect and focus, your students will, too.

Start the Discussion 

Gather your students in the meeting area and display the first page of the flip chart. Tell students that today you are going to teach them about the ways we impact our environment and the importance of reducing waste, reusing, and recycling.

Begin your conversations by having students define "impact" and "environment" in their own words. If they are unsure about the definitions, explain these words to them. Then, have them look at the picture. What do they see? You might hear things like buildings, grass, trees, a field, nature, a clean environment, or a park. How do our actions affect the environment we live in?

Make Observations and Share Ideas

Ask students to look at the items in the photographs below and discuss what they have in common.


Have students turn and talk to share their ideas with each other before having them share with the whole class. Listen in on conversations to get a sense of what they are thinking. Students might notice that they are all made of plastic, that they all hold things, and that they can be reused or recycled.

But here's what they don't know: Each of these items can be extremely harmful to animals.



Explain that if helium balloons are let go, they eventually lose air, deflate, and drift back down to earth. And where might they end up? In our oceans, ponds, rivers, and lakes. Plastic bags and six pack rings might find their way there as well, especially when people are careless.

So, what happens when these items make it to our waters? They can wind up trapping and killing animals.



Falcon I'm going to step away from the pages of my flipchart to share a story with you. About a year ago, I helped rescue a baby falcon from a park near my home and had the chance to meet an amazing family of animal rescuers.

The fledgling falcon had left his nest early and was too young to fly back home. I saw him struggling on the shore and knew he needed help. I remembered reading about a recent animal rescue effort in a Daily News article, "Bravest's Rescue," and placed a frantic call to Cathy St. Pierre, founder of Wildlife in Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation (WINORR). WIth the help of her friend Peter, the falcon was rescued and taken to be rehabilitated in her Long Island home.

The falcon is now in flight school in Upstate New York. The hope is that he will be strong enough to be released back into the wild. Here is a photo of him when he was picked up in Astoria Park. Look closely at the top of his head, and you'll see that he still has his white, fluffy baby feathers. Without Cathy and Peter's help, this baby would not have survived. I am so thankful that they have given him a second chance! You can visit Peter's blog to see some amazing photos of other animals he has worked with.


I've stayed in touch with Cathy, and I've been amazed to see all of the animals she rescues. She recently came across this mallard duck in trouble in a pond in Queens. Ouch . . . poor bird! 

Animals can easily crawl, swim, or walk into the loop of a plastic bag or six pack ring. Explain to your students that once this happens, the animal is trapped. As the animal grows, the animal gets larger and larger, and the plastic gets tighter and tighter, causing the animal much harm. Animals don’t have hands to remove the rings or words to ask a friend for help. Once they are trapped in plastic, it is difficult for them to free themselves. Eventually they will die. How can we keep this from happening? We can make the choice to buy products that are not packaged with these rings. We can use cloth tote bags when we go shopping to reduce the amount of plastic in our environment. If students do come across plastic rings, they can ask an adult to cut them up before throwing them away.

It's important to reduce the amount of plastic we use. With time, most of the plastic that ends up in the sea loses its color. As it floats in the water, it looks a lot like jellyfish. 


Animals ingest plastic, which can’t pass through their system and doesn’t break down. This picture may be the most graphic of all. Remember to ask your student to look at it with “scientists'” eyes.  


Now, we hope that no one would intentionally hurt an animal, but by this point in the lesson, students may realize that some of their actions may have unintentionally caused an animal harm. They may have innocently tossed six pack rings into the trash without cutting them up first. Perhaps someone let a balloon go to watch it float high up into the sky. We've all discarded a plastic bag without reusing it first. But now that we know the human impact on the environment, we can do something to help. 

Create a list of ways that people can make a difference.You might want to discuss:

  • making an effort to put garbage in the right place
  • not littering
  • recycling
  • using reusable cloth tote bags at the supermarket instead of plastic grocery bags
  • reusing plastic bags for things like picking up dog waste
  • being careful NOT to release helium balloons (or avoiding balloons altogether)
  • cutting up the six pack rings before putting them into the garbage or recycling bin
  • not buying products with hazardous packaging

Work in Groups to Create Posters and Educate Others

Take what you’ve learned and make a poster to help educate others:


As children meet in their groups, ask them to jot down some of their ideas on paper before laying out plans for their posters. 


This activity will get kids reading, writing, speaking, and listening as well as working together in collaborative groups on a topic that reaches beyond the walls of your classroom. Hand out large sheets of paper, some crayons, and markers, and get right to it!

Students can work together in small groups . . .

Workingtogetherposter Workingtogether







or in partnerships.


Set aside time for students to share their posters with the class and hang them throughout the school. Here are some of the posters that were made by this group of 3rd graders:




After finishing up this project, I came across a really interesting blog post by a principal called "What Makes a Master Teacher." As I read through his list of ten characteristics, I truly felt that with lesson plans like these, teachers can meet (and exceed) these expectations. So, my fellow master teachers, get out there and teach your kids about an environmental cause that YOU are passionate about. 

Possible Lesson Extensions:

  • Have students draw up a petition to encourage companies to stop using plastic rings. Petitions are great if you are pressed for time and need to quickly collect a large number of signatures to show support on a certain issue.
  • Follow up with a letter writing lesson and motivate students to express themselves on an important issue. They can write to a local congressman to get legislation passed or write companies directly. It takes time for someone to sit down and write a letter. Letter writing campaigns show companies that an issue is important to their consumers.  

There are so many environmental issues you may choose to explore with your students as you celebrate Earth Day. Think about environmental problems in your community. Can your students come up with a plan of action to make a difference? Find a cause close to your heart, and your lesson will have a lasting impact on the students you teach.

Earth Day will be celebrated around the world this Friday, April 22nd, but these types of lessons can be done any time. I personally think we should treat each day as if it's Earth Day. ♥

Here’s to respecting animals and taking responsibility for the environment. Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!

Happy Earth Day!

Comments (6)

Hi, Becky T!

Thanks for the positive feedback!

Have you tried to use the print link in the upper right corner on the little chalkboard? It doesn’t really put the post into any special format, but it will print the post for you. Give it a try!

=) Danielle

Hi Genessis, I hope you enjoyed your time on vacation. It's nice to see that you are excited about what we might be doing next. It looks like we are finishing up our poetry books and then it's on to communicating with Gabi from Semester at Sea. I look forward to seeing all of you tomorrow!

=) Miss Mahoney

Wow! Another timely, simple and powerful lesson. You have a gift for making the overwhelming very manageable.

Was wondering... could Scholastic make these lessons in a printer friendly format for downloading?

hi I want to know what we are going to do next in the enrichment group. please write back.

Hi Becky! Thanks for being brave enough to present these photos and this lesson to your "scientists"!! I will work on getting a Power Point version on here ASAP.

=) Danielle

Thank you for all of your great pictures and ideas for Earth Day. Would you be able to convert your Promethean Flipchart to a Power Point? Thanks!!

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