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ESL Lesson Plan: The Environment

Teach your ESL young learners about how to protect the environment by reducing waste

Today we’re feeling very green and we’d like to share with you an environmental ESL lesson plan that’ll sensitise your young learners to the enormous problem of waste. We’re all about creating ESL lesson plans that not only motivate young learners, but inspire them to become better people. What better way of achieving that than by helping them care about the environment?

This lesson plan will:

  • Highlight the problem of waste and pollution to your young learners.
  • Teach them the vocabulary of different materials (plastic, glass, cardboard etc).
  • Raise awareness in your students about the environmental impact of different materials.
  • Get your class talking in English about the environment with a fun question-based game.

This lesson plan is for children around the age of 10-12, but it can be used for younger kids if they have a good level of English already.

We’d like to give a special shout-out to our friends over at Picker Pals, especially ELT author Patrick Jackson, for inspiring this post. Make sure to read to the end to get Patrick’s top tips about how to inspire environmental awareness in your students.

Now let’s get right into our lesson plan.

Introduce the topic of the environment and waste

Instead of just telling your students about what waste is and why it’s such a problem for our planet, you could try and make them see it with their own eyes.

Before class starts, make sure you’ve collected some rubbish (yep, this lesson plan involves getting your hands dirty!) You could empty the bins from each class or bring a rubbish bag that you’ve got at home.

Of course, try not to have too much “wet” waste or it may get a bit too disgusting!

Then, before class, dump the rubbish all over the classroom floor, or even put some on top of your students’ desks (just make sure to give everything a proper clean afterwards!)

When the children come in and see all the mess you can explain to them that this is what we call “rubbish” “waste” or “garbage” in English. Ask them if they prefer the classroom like this and how they feel about seeing all this rubbish.

Tell them that this type of waste is pollution is happening all over the planet.

Now get the children to take a look at the rubbish: how many things can they name from the garbage? Write the words on the whiteboard.

Talk about materials and their environmental impact

Now it’s time to introduce the vocabulary of materials since we’ll be talking about things like recycling and zero-waste.

With the help of some images that you can find online and classroom objects, start teaching the children some of the key materials vocabulary.

Key vocabulary to teach

  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • Glass
  • Plastic
  • Organic Waste
  • Aluminium

Make sure the children see various objects made of the same material to avoid them confusing the names of the object (like bottle) with the material (like glass).

Time to protect the environment by sorting out the rubbish!

Split the class up into groups and assign each group a material and give them cardboard boxes or a bin bag.

Tell them that they have to go and collect the rubbish in the classroom that is made of the same material as their group (you probably won’t have much glass in there so best to skip that one).

Each group goes through the class picking up their rubbish. Give the “paper/cardboard/plastic/aluminium ” group a cardboard box to collect their rubbish to avoid more plastic bags.

Introduce different ways we can reduce waste and reduce the impact of litter on the environment

Now that the children have gathered their rubbish, we can start talking about what to do with it.

Here you’ll introduce 4 concepts:

  • Landfill: a place where rubbish is put in the ground or burnt
  • Recycling: when we make something new from something old
  • Zero-waste: when we try to reduce as much as possible the waste we produce by not buying things with packaging
  • Compost: organic waste and soil that’s used as plant food

Now, ask the children what they can do with their rubbish. Highlight to the plastic group that usually plastic can’t be recycled and most of it ends up in landfill.

Once the children have answered, ask them what they think the best method for dealing with waste is and ask them why.

Play the Zero-waste game!

Now let’s play the zero-waste and zero-prep game to get them talking about how to save the planet! The aim of this game is to answer questions about the environment correctly and with each right answer they “save” some rubbish from their group bin. Whoever ends up with 0 items in their bin wins the game.

How to Play

  • On the whiteboard, write up the names of the groups and organize them into columns.
  • Each column should have 5 lines drawn in it (or happy faces, or hearts or whatever else you want!)
  • Give each group a pen and paper
  • You’ll ask them a series of environmental questions and they have to write their answers on their piece of paper
  • At the end of the questions, you can tell them the correct answers and have them mark how many they got right
  • For each correct answer you can rub out a line (or happy face or heart…) from that group’s column: the goal is to have none left

Environment ESL questions for the zero-waste game

To save you some time, we’ve prepared some questions for you and included the (sometimes shocking!) answers.

  1. True or false: there is so much plastic in the world that we are starting to eat it
  2. True: draw an illustration of what happens when things like plastic bottles are thrown away, make their way into the ocean, are eaten by fish and are then eaten by us.

  3. Is it better for the environment to drink tap water or bottled water?
  4. Tap water because it doesn’t use plastic, however many poorer countries don’t have access to clean water which is another environmental concern.

  5. Name 3 things that can be recycled
  6. Generally speaking all paper, cardboard, glass and aluminium can be recycled

  7. What’s worse for the environment: paper or plastic?
  8. Plastic because it usually can’t be recycled and stays around in the environment for many many years after it’s thrown away.

  9. What’s another word for rubbish?
  10. Garbage, waste, trash, litter

  11. What can we do with organic waste?
  12. Turn it into compost

  13. Now you’re going to get the children to match terms and definitions. On the board write “reduce” “rubbish” “recycle” in one column and “what we throw away”, “to make something new from something old” and “use less” and get the children to match the definitions with the words
  14. True or False: We can use organic waste to make food for plants
  15. True, it’s called compost

  16. True or false: plastic waste has been found everywhere on earth – even Antarctica!
  17. True – plastic waste has been found across the globe, even in remote areas.

Protecting the Environment beyond the ESL Classroom

To finish up, you can have the children use the school’s recycling bins to throw away their rubbish or commit to taking it to a public bin yourself (you good egg!)

As a homework assignment, you can get your class to identify 3 ways that they can reduce their waste at home.

Some ideas for your students to reduce their waste at home

  • Not drinking with a single-use plastic straw, but with a reusable one
  • Drinking less from plastic bottles and instead buying a reusable water bottle that they can fill up with tap water
  • Buying at zero-waste shops and carrying cloth bags
  • Make compost from organic waste to feed plants they may have at home, or to use in their garden


We asked ELT author and Environmentalist, Patrick Jackson, 3 questions on how to encourage environmentalism in our ESL classrooms

A bit about Patrick: Now back in Ireland after twelve years teaching Japanese learners of all ages, Patrick is motivated by the power of real-world experiences and community action to inspire and give meaning to classroom learning. A passionate beachcomber and litter-picker, he is currently working on projects that help children discover their role as environmental stewards, including the popular Picker Pals programme. Patrick is the author of several primary ELT courses published by Oxford University Press including Potato Pals, Everybody Up and Shine On. He occasionally wears a cloak festooned with marine debris.

What’s the biggest challenge in helping children understand the environmental impact of litter and waste?

Unfortunately, children all over the world spend far too much time in classrooms, sitting at desks, in rows and between four walls. Much of the rest of their days are spent at home on screens. This is the antithesis of the sort of environment that is conducive to forging a relationship with nature. Our biggest challenge as educators and parents is to create opportunities for children to spend enjoyable and safe time outdoors in natural settings.

Due to being unused to spending as much time outdoors as children did in previous generations, children are finding it harder to play and explore outside and as a species we are spending more time looking at screens and sitting down indoors. Unless children are connecting to the natural world in a first-hand manner, they are not going to make the connections that form the basis of environmental empathy, interest and understanding, whether that be watching tadpoles in a local pond or rescuing creatures from the impact of pollution.

The way to break the cycle somewhat is to create specific activities that can easily be done and that are interesting and adventuresome. These activities should foster a sense of pride and give opportunities for positive feedback. Activities of this sort could be a game of hide and seek, a short local litter-pick, growing something easy outdoors (like peas), seeing what birds and animals can be spotted in the area and the old classics like playing tag, climbing trees and swimming in a lake or the ocean.

How can we make our schools more respectful to the environment?

There are lots of good programmes that tie in with the environmental movement. In Europe, there is the Eco Schools organisation and there are similar organisations all around the world. All schools should be active in encouraging environmental learning and local stewardship. Within schools, teachers and children can form clubs and action groups addressing particular environmental issues as well as learning about and celebrating the wonders of nature. Classrooms can be places of great power within a community and children working together can mobilise their families and the whole area behind such actions as recycling, walking and cycling to school, beach and park clean-ups, making posters and contacting local representatives to tackle pollution in the area.

How can we keep motivation levels high in our students when it comes to protecting the environment?

Children like responsibility, they like to be the chosen one in the class and they like action and adventure. For this reason, the Picker Pals programme, which equips children with the tools they need to go litter-picking in special packs that they take home is very popular with children, teachers and parents. Any classroom can take on some degree of local stewardship and this will create real results that everyone will feel invested in. Positive feedback on the results and a sense of pride are very motivational for anyone, especially children. A feel of belonging to a group that is taking action is energising and exciting for students of any age.

How can we involve parents in the process?

As all teachers know, parents can be a wonderful resource…or not! The best way to involve parents in the environmental activities your students are doing is to keep them informed and to send children home with tasks that they can do at home such as surveys about environmental practices or specific actions they can perform. Parents are 99% of the time happy to support their child’s environmental learning. They will be important in playing a part in forming the basis of environmental empathy, interest and understanding, whether that be watching tadpoles in a local pond or rescuing creatures from the impact of pollution.

In conclusion, we should be looking for ways to encourage action over the sedentary life, outdoors over indoors, real experience over second-hand learning and we should aim to build as many bridges as possible between our classrooms and homes and the outside world. We should go easily and bear in mind that some children are very set in their indoor lives. We should be role models, showing our students how much we enjoy and appreciate our relationship with nature and our actions stewarding it. It is an incredibly important time for us to be doing this and a privilege we have as educators. Embrace it with both muddy hands!

Find Patrick on Twitter, Facebook, and on Instagram

Wrapping up

We hope this lesson will help your ESL students better understand the environmental impact of waste and rubbish and gives them new confidence when tackling such discussions in the future.

And while you’re here, don’t forget to to contact us for a special FREE trial of ELT Songs so your class can sing and dance their way to English fluency with our pop music videos.



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