Early Childhood Activities for Plastic Free July

Plastic Free July inspires people to be part of the solution to reducing plastic pollution. This annual event is a great opportunity to engage young children in exploring the topic and join with your community to tackle the issue of plastic pollution together. In this blog post we’ve outlined a range of early childhood activities for Plastic Free July based around inquiry questions to explore the topic of plastic from different angles. At the end of the blog you’ll find a list of useful resources such as books, videos and websites.

Plastic is NOT fantastic

Plastic is designed to last making it useful for many things in our lives. This also means plastic doesn’t biodegrade easily. Instead of breaking down, it breaks up – into smaller and smaller pieces, leaching toxins and threatening wildlife, causing irreversible damage to our ecosystems. Plastic is not only bad for the environment; it can also have a negative effect on our health.

But plastic gets recycled…. doesn’t it?

It is estimated only 9.4% of plastic rubbish gets recycled – the rest ends up being burnt in landfill or living many lifetimes as permanent litter (Australian Plastics Recycled Survey).

Inviting children to be part of the solution

Children are powerful agents of change. As educators, our role is to help them understand and make informed choices about using plastic as early as possible. We all know the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. In early childhood education, lots of emphasis is placed on recycling education. Being confident in recycling is important but as most plastic won’t be recycled, we need to put more emphasis on engaging children in learning about refusing and reducing plastic in their everyday lives. This will help to tackle the plastic problem at the source.

Plastic Free July Educational Display

Themed displays are a great way to engage your centre community in Plastic Free July. This could be in the front foyer of the centre and/or in the children’s classroom. Displays prompt questions from children, educators and families and these questions lead to interesting conversations. Plastic Free July has a number of free information posters you could display or share with families. A staggering one million single-use plastic bottles are purchased around the world every minute. How can you communicate the extent of this issue to children, families and staff? Perhaps a wall of empty plastic bottles? Show plastic-free alternates to commonly used plastic items like drink bottles, coffee cups, straws or plastic bags? Or display different types of plastic rubbish and pictures showing the impacts of plastic?

A wall of empty plastic bottles
Creative wall design to highlight the issue with single-use plastics

Inquiry questions and activities for early learning

Below are some inquiry questions linked to activity ideas to help children understand and take action on plastic pollution. These activities are for early childhood (babies – 5 year olds) but can be adapted for any age level.

Inquiry questions: What is rubbish? Is all rubbish the same?

Activity: Rubbish Materials Game

Start by asking children “what is rubbish?” and discuss their answers. Have the children sit in a circle and place a pile of empty, clean rubbish in the middle. Make sure there are a range of materials and check these materials for safety prior to the activity e.g., sharp edges. Ask children “is all rubbish the same?” Rubbish comes in all shapes and sizes. Pick different example materials out of the pile – some rubbish is big, some small, some rubbish is in a circle shape, other rubbish is rectangular, some rubbish is soft, and some is hard. Rubbish makes different sounds. Metal makes a clanging sound. Plastic bags make a squishy, rustling sound. 

Briefly introduce the different rubbish materials in the pile to the children. Highlight the characteristics of rubbish e.g., paper and cardboard rip, glass feels cool on your skin… Then offer each child a turn to stand up and pick out a particular type of rubbish from the pile and show the group. For example, “Michael, can you please find something made of metal?” “Bella, can you please find something made of soft plastic; not hard plastic, soft?” Children can take turns picking out different types of rubbish materials: plastic, metal, glass, paper, cardboard, foam etc.  If a child wants help, show an example item made of the same material and ask “can you see anything like this in the pile?” This is a great sensory activity as children get to touch and listen to the sounds rubbish makes. For younger children, they will enjoy touching a range of clean rubbish materials. Helping children to identify different plastic items (soft and hard) and understand how plastic is different to other waste materials is key here. Children can’t get good at recycling until they understand the difference between waste materials.

You also might like to show some fruits and vegetables (whole or scraps) afterwards to introduce organic waste and kick start learning on biodegradable materials. 

Rubbish sorting at a Little Sprouts Waste Not, Want Not incursion

Activity: Plastic is all around us

What plastics are in the room? Play yard? Throughout the centre? Have the children go ‘plastic hunting.’ How many things can they see that are made of plastic? What are these items? Keep a list and perhaps photograph these items to create a display. To extend on this, children could choose one item that they would like to swap for a plastic-free alternative starting during Plastic Free July.

Activity: How much plastic waste do we make?

For a certain period of time e.g., one day, gather your waste from the room (excluding nappy waste). Empty this onto a tarp. How much of the rubbish is plastic? What are these items? What waste can be recycled, composted or would go to landfill? Seeing a visual of the actual rubbish we create just in one day is mind boggling. Again, you could use this to stimulate discussion about what plastic item/s you could swap to something better for the environment.

Inquiry question: What’s the problem with plastic?

When we ask this question at our incursions, kids answer without hesitation; “plastic is bad for animals; it can hurt them.” Children are growing up in a world where they know plastic is bad for wildlife and the environment, particularly in waterways and the ocean. Whales, turtles and seabirds often mistake plastic rubbish for food which can make them sick or be fatal.

Activity: Save the animals

This activity is an invitation to play and is great for practicing fine motor skills. What you’ll need:

  • A water tub
  • Blue food dye (optional)
  • Marine animal toys (optional)
  • A range of plastic rubbish: fishing line, small pieces of plastic, straws, cups, plastic bags etc.
  • Tongs

Add the plastic rubbish to the water. Don’t let children see you do this as it is not modelling the behaviour we want to see. Ask children to pick out the pieces of plastic with tongs to save the animals.

Inquiry questions: What happens after we’ve finished with rubbish? Where does it go? How long does rubbish take to break down?

Activity: Emu Parade

If you grew up in Australia you may know the term Emu Parade. Take the children for a walk to a local park or oval and pick up rubbish using buckets and tongs. Take photos of the rubbish you find and display it during group time. Have the children guess where the rubbish came from and what it was used for. Dispose of rubbish in the correct bins.

Activity: Which rubbish breaks down?

To explore concepts of breaking down and biodegrading, set up an activity with different waste materials in jars or containers with soil in the bottom. Poke some holes in the top of the jar so oxygen can still enter. Ask children to predict how long they think it will take for each item to break down. If you have a worm farm or compost, this is the best way to show children what ‘breaks down’ looks like and discuss what can and can’t be composted. It also stimulates questions on where all the other ‘stuff’ that can’t be composted goes.

Waste break down experiment
An experiment for children to predict and see how long different waste takes to break down
Activity: Trash timeline

Gather a range of clean rubbish items or pictures of these items. Make a line across the room using masking tape or rope and mark different timing along this e.g., one week, month, 1 year, 10 years, 1 million years. Hold up different waste items and ask children how long they think each item will take to break down. Place items on the timeline. Then check if children got it right and move the items around if they were wrong. You can find information to prepare for the rubbish timeline activity here. This is also a great idea for an educational display for Plastic Free July.

Activity: It doesn’t ‘go away’

If possible, arrange an excursion to your local transfer station or recycling plant. Or visit a rubbish trap area at your local river. Seeing the amount of waste we generate that gets out into the environment is powerful and can provoke many conversations with children. 

Inquiry question: How can we say no to plastic?

Activity: Shopping role play and practice 

Set up a shopping role play area with a range of real (preferred) or fake items in the supermarket – some with paper packaging, some with plastic etc. You also might like to put some loose items in large containers with scoops – think pasta, washing detergent, dried tea, rice or oats. This way children can experience what it’s like to shop for loose items, weigh this and practice filling up their paper bags. There are lots of options now to buy loose food products without pesky plastic packaging. Ask the children to go shopping and pick items without plastic. Tempt children with plastic bags so they can have fun saying ‘no!’  

If possible, you could also arrange an excursion to your local grocery store. Breaking up into small groups of children with supervision, each group will find items on the shopping list and practice picking plastic-free packaging options.

A child getting vegetables in a toy supermarket

Other Resources

Little Sprouts Incursions

Our Waste Not Want Not incursion is a great hands-on opportunity for children to explore waste and the issues of plastic. Children get to investigate the different types of materials used to make the products and food we consume. They are introduced to refusing, reducing, reusing and recycling. They will begin to explore where waste goes after use, problems it can cause and what can and can’t be recycled. Children will put learning into action by making a recycled hanging garden. For more information see https://littlesproutsprogram.com.au/incursions/

Books about Plastic Waste

Some examples include:

  • What a Waste by Jess French 
  • One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia by Miranda Paul
  • Little Turtle and the Changing Sea by Becky Davies 
  • Somebody Swallowed Stanley by Sarah Roberts

Also check out our blog post on our favourite sustainability books for early childhood.

Videos about Plastic Waste

What is Plastic Pollution? The Binocs Show https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ODni_Bey154

A Whale’s Tale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xFPoIU5iiYQ

What is Plastic Pollution? Effects of Plastic Pollution: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeJVq5Pbjas


Plastic Free July  


Plastic-Free July at Guardian Centres https://www.guardian.edu.au/blog/news/plastic-isnt-fantastic-plastic-free-july/ 

Written by Meagan Williams and Carolyn Luder.

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