When I was in elementary school in the early 1980s, environmental education was focused on catastrophes like toxic waste and rainforest destruction. While these issues remain relevant for our society at large, many have come to realize that global problems of this nature were too difficult for kids to wrap their minds around, and harder still understand what we, as young children, could do about them.

Instead, many educators have shifted to place-based education—of which garden-based learning is a part. Place-based education is hands-on, real world learning that uses the local environment to help kids understand the natural world around them and their place in it.

One place-based solution that my teachers successfully engaged my classmates and me in was recycling. It was just beginning to gain widespread adoption in the United States, and I remember that my classmates and I felt empowered and proud to be able to actually do something to contribute to the better health of our planet. We created a recycling club called the Planeteers (probably breaking some kind of trademark law) and made green t-shirts adorned with a planet encircled by smiling children holding hands.

My friends and I were pretty effective at changing our parents’ behaviors at home as well, bringing home facts and figures about the importance of recycling and getting our parents to sort plastics from metals and cardboard.

These days, recycling is well accepted at home, with curbside pick-up and no-sort bins in many communities. It’s a bit harder to do in schools and institutions, however. And many schools are still working to improve their recycling rates.

At KidsGardening, we like to engage kids in educational activities that empower them to be part of the solution. And I personally believe that for young kids, presenting global issues alongside things they can actually do to help is less anxiety inducing than discussing deforestation, for example, in the abstract.

One such program is our Carton 2 Garden contest. For three years now, we have partnered with Evergreen Packaging to recognize more than a dozen outstanding projects from across the country, featuring innovative creations designed by K-12 students and educators by re-purposing milk and juice cartons from their school cafeterias to engage students in hands-on, garden-related educational experiences.

We’re proud of this program and the young participants. It is empowering kids to think about their role in protecting the planet. And these kids are taking action: the percentage of schools that recycled milk and juice cartons prior to the Carton 2 Garden contest is just 30%. After participating in the Carton 2 Garden contest the percentage of schools that recycle milk and juice cartons is 80%! The percentage of schools that continue to save milk and juice cartons to use for special projects after the Carton 2 Garden Contest is 90%!


This program reaches nearly 7,000 students and educators across the nation every year and rewards the most innovative with cash prizes to support educational garden programs in their schools.

This type of positive reinforcement for innovative, solution oriented, pro-social behavior is exactly what kids need more of.
Would you like to participate in the 2017 Carton 2 Garden Contest? It’s not too late. Download your entry kit here and engage your students in an age appropriate place-based, environmental education.

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