Plastic has become ubiquitous not only in our lives, but in our oceans.

Elementary school teacher (and IHE graduate certificate alum) Betsy Farrell-Messenger has created a lesson plan to help younger students think critically about issues surrounding trash in our oceans and to consider positive solutions.

Here’s how it works:

1.    Being very quiet, on a world map outline the five major floating plastic swamps (gyres) in a red marker. Display for the students to observe.

2.    Ask the participants questions, such as:
•    “Where are these outlined areas located?”
•    “What are the names of these oceans?”
•    “What organisms live in these areas?”
•    “Why do you think these areas are outlined in red?”

Create a list of the responses to display during the class.

Explain to the students they are going to investigate items that have something to do with these outlined areas.

3.    Give each individual a piece of plastic such as a bottle top (various colors), toothbrushes or other plastic bathroom tools, various colors of tiny pieces of plastic, if possible include industry plastic pellets, etc.

4.    Ask the participants: “What items do you have?” “What do these items have in common?”  On a large sheet of paper, create lists showing students’ responses.

5.    Initiate a discussion by asking, “How could these items be related to the red outlined ocean areas on the world map?”

The students may not know, but that’s okay. The students are thinking and curious about the connection.

6.    Ask the students, “What do people do with plastic items when they are done with them?” (responses usually are to throw them away or recycle them) “What happens if plastics aren’t recycled properly?”

Explain to the students that they are going to find out how the items they have are related to the outlined areas in the oceans.

7.    Show video clips and other excerpts to help give students an overview of the issues and of potential solutions. You may wish to have students write down any thoughts, concerns, and disagreements with the videos/excerpts to discuss later.

8.    After the videos and other information, ask the students to share:
•    What did they learn?
•    How do they feel about what they learned?
•    Of the information they learned, what moved them the most?
•    Was there any information they thought needed further explanation or with which they didn’t agree?

9.    Ask  students, “What do the red outlined areas on the map represent?” “Do you think this is a problem? How? Why?”

Ask: “Do you think YOU could help solve this problem or develop alternatives?” (Some students might say no, but hopefully by the end they’ll be able to see how much they can do.)

10.    In small groups of three to four, have the students try to develop possible solutions or alternatives to the problem of plastic pollution. Have each group present their ideas.

As a class, discuss what the students could do in their own school/community and create a plan. Get parents and the school community involved.

Sample ideas:

a. Create a bulletin board in school educating the school community about the problem and display all the possible solutions and/or alternatives. The board can also outline ways the school could help and/or how students/faculty could help at home.

b. Have the students work in smaller groups and present lessons in the other classes on biomagnification and how plastics impact wildlife, etc.

c. Students could write plastic producers encouraging them to develop other options.

d. Students could organize and host a community night with videos, demonstrations and panel discussions on how the community can help solve the problem or develop alternatives locally.

As the teacher, support and follow through on an action plan. There can be a couple of different plans depending on the students’ interests.

Download the complete activity.