plastic pollution

I Taught Kindergarteners About Plastic Pollution, and They Are Eager to Be Part of the Solution

by Elizabeth O. Crawford, Ph.D.

During Earth Week 2018, I was a guest presenter to kindergarteners attending Island Montessori School (IMS) located in the beautiful, coastal town of Wilmington, North Carolina.

As teacher educators often remark, classroom visits rejuvenate and inspire our work preparing the next generation of educators.

When we spend time with children and their educators, we are reminded of our ultimate purpose: to ensure that all children have access to quality educational experiences, where they feel valued as whole persons with unique interests, talents, and passions, and that we support teachers in this important work.

Grounded in the philosophy and child-centered approaches of Dr. Maria Montessori, the school’s learning community and curriculum naturally reflect the core values and principles of humane education. Here, children are empowered as citizens and solutionaries, as I would soon learn while teaching a lesson on the causes, effects, and solutions to marine pollution to five- and six-year-olds.

When entering the classroom, I am greeted by a child who enthusiastically asks, “Are you someone’s mom?”

There is both innocence and wisdom in this question (as is often true for children’s thoughts and wonderings). How am I connected to this community? Whom do I love and care for here?

Grace, Courtesy, and Humane Education

At IMS, the values of caring and responsibility for our actions as a community member also extend to the Earth and other living beings. Founding board member Melinda Cummings explains the school’s core philosophy:

“Grace and courtesy is a very central and integral part of a Montessori education. Not only do we believe it is important for our students to learn academic areas like math and language arts, we also believe it is equally, if not more important, for our students to be graceful and courteous and kind. We place a strong emphasis on caring for ourselves, other people, our classroom environment, and our planet. Our most important mission as educators is to create caring, compassionate individuals who know the appropriate way to treat other people and our environment.”

Like the Montessori Method, I ascribe to a “whole person” approach to teaching and learning, where students’ intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competences are equally valued and fostered.

I aim for my students to instill in children compassion, responsibility, and skills in critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving through meaningful, relevant, and empowering learning experiences.

And, above all else, I strive to cultivate a greater sense of conscientiousness in my students, where they think more deeply about the interconnectedness of humans, other living beings, and the environment; their unique and important role; and how all choices matter–the ways we treat others, what we consume and discard, how we spend our time.

Yellow Ducks, Ocean Currents, and Plastic Pollution

My Earth Day lesson attempted to incorporate these aims (as appropriate for young children) using a humane education lens.

pictures of plastic ducks taped to world map
We mapped the plastic ducks to show how they were affected by ocean currents. Image courtesy Elizabeth Crawford.

Having read about the incredible 1992 cargo wreck that resulted in 28,000 plastic yellow ducks lost at sea, circulating and appearing on seashores around the world in the decades since, I knew that plastic bath toys would be an engaging “hook” for my lesson.

I displayed my four-year-old daughter’s rubber duck, ship, and stackable bath toys, asking the children:

What do these items have in common?

After a brief discussion of their physical properties, one child chimed in: “They are made of plastic!”

Surprisingly for their age, several children knew that plastic was made from fossil fuels, a nonrenewable resource.

I then projected a photograph of the some of the plastic ducks washed ashore and used the visible thinking routine See-Think-Wonder to guide students’ observation and reflection on the image:

What do you see?

What do you think about that?

What does it make you wonder?

Afterwards, I prompted students by asking, “Why do you think these plastic ducks are showing up on shores in Maine, Alaska, Hawaii, Australia (among other places)?”

We pinned paper ducks to a world map and watched “Ducks overboard!” a short animation based on the children’s book, How the World Works by Christiane Dorion.

Through these examples and discussions, children concluded that the Earth’s ocean currents circulate, moving debris (like the ducks) long distances, where they may wash onshore. In other cases, garbage is trapped in ocean gyres.

No matter how matter moves throughout the oceans, students learned that plastic and other waste are harmful to marine animals, to humans, and to the delicate balance of life in marine ecosystems.

Art, Plastic Gyres, and a Firsthand Look

Because images are powerful teaching tools, I demonstrated how art can be a form of activism to raise awareness about a host of issues.

Artist Chris Jordan’s Running the Numbers II series, and “Gyre” in particular, effectively portray the large scale of mass consumerism in ways that young children can understand.

What was perhaps most impactful, sparking the strongest reactions from the children, though, were the glass jars and bins of plastics containing authentic plastic marine debris that I displayed and then permitted children to examine.

Image of Bonnie Monteleone's artwork
From Bonnie Monteleone’s art exhibit, “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Image courtesy Bonnie Monteleone

These samples were collected in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and South Atlantic gyres by local scientist and co-founder of the nonprofit Plastic Ocean Project, Inc. (POP), Bonnie Monteleone.

When witnessing firsthand the beautiful beaches of Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, littered with plastic trash, Monteleone was determined to prevent this from occurring on our own beaches in North Carolina.

She founded POP and created a traveling art exhibit, “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” aimed to raise awareness about the impacts of single-use plastics and solutions to address the issue.

The use of a narrative and concrete samples to illustrate the interconnectedness of our human and ecological systems allowed young children to make connections to their daily lives. Curriculum Coordinator, Lara Hamlet, explains that:

“At Island Montessori School, we use connective narratives to paint the big picture for our children. These narratives inspire them to analyze our earth and the place humans have within it, gaining a respect for how all human life affects the Earth, moral empathy, and the universality of the human condition. This lesson on plastics and our planet provided the perfect narrative to open the children’s eyes to the bigger picture. The story of the 1992 journey for a cargo container of rubber ducks provided the perfect foundation for opening up their mind to view their daily encounters with plastic– necessity versus desire and want. The ocean samples, though, are what truly brought the lesson to life. Children were able to hold the ocean in their hands and see first hand the water contents through the jar.”

Young Children Want to Be Changemakers

Kindergarten student Joshua looks through a box of plastic waste collected from the ocean.
Joshua looks through a bin of plastic waste collected from the ocean. Image courtesy Elizabeth Crawford.

Later that evening, I received an email that renewed my commitment to integrating global issues and solutions into the curriculum, including with five-year-olds. Sally Petermann’s son had participated in my lesson, and he came home talking about it:

“I wanted to let you know your lesson you gave today at IMS made a significant impact on my son. He came home talking about it and was very excited about what he learned. He talked a lot about the box of trash from the beach and how sad it made him feel that people would do that to the beach. He said that he felt like we were even responsible because trash we throw away here could have blown off and gotten in the ocean and ended up on that beach. He said he was really worried about how sick all the ocean animals were getting having to swim through that all the time. He said he loves going to the beach to play and see all the animals, but he is afraid we won’t have a beach to go to if everyone does not stop littering.

Then, the best part was, he said ‘But guess what mom, did you know there’s something we can do about it? Even me just being a little kid, I can still help make things better! All we have to do is help pick up trash and try to make less trash and we will be helping the ocean be healthier.’

So I asked him how he wanted to help, and he decided he wants to start by taking one day a month to go to the beach and just walk up and down it and clean it. He said he would invite family and his friends to join him, because ‘the more people there, the more trash we can find, and the healthier the beach will be!’

I was amazed. He has always been a very socially conscious kid, but because of your lesson today, he now truly believes and understands that even a little kid can make a difference in solving significant world problems.”

The World Becomes What We Teach

In her TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” Zoe Weil made a compelling case for why and how we should change our educational system to prepare students as conscious choice-makers and solutionaries.

This talk significantly altered my views on what schooling can be for children and my role as a teacher educator.

I recall a question Zoe posed in this talk that my own preservice teachers often ask me when I introduce humane education: “Is this [approach to education] good for kids? And is it really fair to them, to burden them with the responsibility to fix all the problems that generations before them have created?”

As the mother of a four-year-old who will soon enter kindergarten, I often envision the kind of educational experiences I hope for her to have. Like Sally’s son, my daughter Kate is compassionate, sensitive, and socially conscious.

When she witnesses injustices or environmental damage, like marine pollution, she wants to be part of the solution.

Introducing children to global ethical issues and equipping them with knowledge, skills, and tools to problem-solve is not only empowering, it is the right thing to do.

Later in her talk, Zoe asserts, “It’s unfair not to provide the knowledge and the skills to our students, to our children, so that they can be solutionaries for a better world.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

My experience teaching a solutions-focused lesson on plastic pollution to young children at IMS reaffirms my commitment to follow children’s natural inclinations to show grace and courtesy to each other and to the earth.