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Conservation with kids

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© iStockphoto.com/Carrie Bottomley © iStockphoto.com/Carrie Bottomley

By Cynthia Ramnarace

"Mommy, you're not saving the Earth." Mira folded her 6-year-old arms at me as I cleaned the stove while the water ran idly in the sink.

She was right. I told her so and turned off the tap.

My kids -- Mira and 3-year-old Miles -- have turned out to be excellent ambassadors for the three R's: reusing, recycling and reducing. They know that a pair of scissors, a rubber band and some markers can transform a paper towel roll into a fashionable set of binoculars. And when we're out and about, we never toss an empty water bottle in the trash simply because a recycling bin is out of sight; Mira, for one, advocates bringing the plastic bottle home and disposing of it properly.

These are great first steps, but I'm continually in search of new ways to encourage earth-friendly activities around the house. After all, just last summer I still fielded requests to fill the kiddie pool daily, and I often caught a little one standing in front of an open fridge leisurely assessing its contents.

So I asked some eco-minded moms for tips on encouraging conservation and reducing waste among the younger set. Here's what they said.

1. Enlist your kids' imaginations.

Before you recycle a soda bottle, cardboard box or glass jar, ask your kids if they think there's a way to reuse it. For inspiration, consider what Sheri Amsel's kids created with a 2-liter plastic bottle. Amsel, author of 365 Ways to Live Green for Kids: Saving the Environment at Home, School, or at Play -- Every Day!, helped them create terrariums filled with plants and the occasional small creature. They also used them to store marbles, rocks and action figures.

2. Give them responsibility.

Looking for the perfect starter chore for your young kids? Put them in charge of recycling. Let them decorate each bin -- paper, plastic, glass -- with pictures, stickers and designs. Then make a game out of recycling, suggests Morgan McKean, blogger at TheGreenChick.me and mother of 5-year-old Jamil.

"Gather several disposable items from around your house, hold them up in front of your children and ask, ‘Recycle or trash?'" says McKean. This teaches kids about recycling, but it also shows them how much waste winds up in the garbage bin. And that might spark ideas for ways to use less!

As kids get older, they'll outgrow sorting games like this one. Amsel suggests putting older kids in charge of collecting the redeemable recyclables. Their incentive? They can keep whatever money they make at the recycling center.

3. Make it fun.

To get her 5-year-old son to use less water, McKean uses a game called Beat the Timer. Whenever he's watering plants in the yard or using the shower or sink, McKean sets a timer and challenges him to finish before the buzzer goes off. "This makes water conservation fun and establishes a pattern for respecting water and our limited supply of it," she says.

"The same can be done with the refrigerator door, I realized. Now my kids count to 10 once they open the door. If they haven't figured it out by then, they get what mommy picks."

4. Lead by example.

Last but not least, be a good model. "As much as we want kids to do it on their own, they really model after us," says Amsel. "So if we reuse things and talk about why we're reusing them, kids pick up on that."

Cynthia Ramnarace is a freelance writer in Queens, N.Y. She is a regular contributor to iVillage.com and AARP Bulletin. Her work also appears frequently in American Baby and Kiwi magazines. 

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