How to Teach Kids to Make Recycling a Habit

Kid with recycling bin

You are never too young to learn to recycle. And what better way to start teaching the next generation to begin recycling than with paper and cardboard. After all, they are one of the most recycled materials in the United States!

How do you start? We recommend doing so by creating an at home recycle center. Don’t worry, all you need is a little space and some cardboard boxes. Place the boxes in an area your child has access to, such as a kitchen or children’s play area. Along with your child, decorate the boxes to show what each will hold (color coding each box may be helpful). This will let the little ones see exactly what goes in each box. If you don’t want to overwhelm them, start with a single box for paper products. Once they get the hang of recycling one type of material then add new boxes for plastics, aluminum, glass and even donations. Here are just a few to get you started!

Empty Flatten Recycle with Family
  • Recycle mailbox: We tend to forget that what we consider a daily chore can be a magical experience for children. So, when you do collect what is in the mailbox, hand the mail to be discarded over to your little postal carrier and ask them to deliver the mail to their recycling mailbox.
  • Building box: Our homes, particularly our kitchens, are filled with cardboard and paper packaging in all different shapes and sizes. Think cereal boxes, juice cartons, egg cartons, raisin boxes and paper towel cardboard tubes. Have children fill this box with your extra packaging and reuse the contents at play time to create structures, such as a castle or a small town. Once the building box starts to overflow, help your little helper break down the small boxes for recycling. Teach them the three easy steps to recycle boxes correctly: 1) empty the box of all materials, 2) flatten the box to save space and 3) put it in the recycling bin. Then you can start filling it up again.
  • Recycle library: Books can be recycled but you are most likely to keep those in the family library. For the recycle library, think of the magazines, catalogs, coloring books and workbooks that are in your home. When the last picture is colored and the last puzzle filled out, teach your kids to place their used material in the box marked “recycle library.” We even have some fun activity sheets children can work on and then handily recycle.
  • Art box: Children are artists, and their favorite medium is paper. Whether it be copy paper, construction paper or even paper bags, nothing escapes crayon and marker. And with two sides, paper is twice the fun! But how much art can a house contain? When the children are done with their art have them save the best for display and provide an art box to place the ones that did not make the cut. If given a choice, children will do just fine letting go of their least favorite pieces of art. And knowing their discarded art will contribute to future art will delight them.
Reinforce learning about recycling with these downloadables.
Download the recycling cheat sheet

Remembering what’s recyclable can be confusing, even for adults, so this printable can be displayed on the family refrigerator and at their recycling station to make recycling second nature. You can also remind you kids that when they recycle, that item can be made into something new. In the case of paper products, it can be recycled up to 7 times!

To get more ideas of what can be recycled, the Environmental Protection Agency is also a great online source to learn more about what can be recycled.  If you want to be certain of what paper and cardboard is recycled in your community, you can also visit for details.

So, teaching children about recycling is simple. Start small with paper and cardboard as the building blocks to create a positive habit for children to take far into adulthood.