The first Earth Day in 1970 inspired an astonishing 20 million Americans to take to streets and college campuses in protest of air and water pollution, loss of wilderness, and animal extinctions, all legacies of the rise of industrial society in the 19th and 20th centuries. Out of this impressive public outcry came the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation to protect air, water, and endangered species.
While we’ve made some strides in controlling pollution and preventing the extinction of marquee species such as the bald eagle and California condor, the concerns of 1970 are very much still with us. Even worse, we now understand that climate change due to human activity is a threat that must be addressed within this century to prevent massive upheaval of societies across the globe.
The following free Earth Day lessons and activities will help teachers explore this crucial subject with K-12 students in an engaging, age-appropriate way.
Earth Day 2022 (opens in new tab)
With Earth Day 2022’s theme of Invest in Our Planet/What Will You Do?, climate change takes center stage. Explore the Earth Day Event Map to discover a variety of different activities, from artistic to activist to faith-based in your area.
Nature Lab (opens in new tab)
A bounty of teaching and learning resources from the Nature Conservancy. Included are educator guides and videos covering the power of trees, citizen science, the 2022 World Needs Challenge, and age-appropriate curricula.
American Museum of Natural History Online Curriculum Collections (opens in new tab)
A superior collection of activities, articles, videos, and other science teaching materials. Select a topic, such as Biodiversity Crisis, then check out the educator materials, from “The Green Guerillas” to “Jane Goodall.”
Plastic Pollution Curriculum and Activity Guide (opens in new tab)
From the 5 Gyres Institute, this extensive set of diverse, in-depth K-12 lessons focus on the problems of plastic and other forms of waste that have ballooned in the past 75 years. Activities include examining the stomach contents of sea birds (virtually or IRL), understanding watersheds, identifying plastics, and many more. Lessons and activities are divided by grade level.
Library of Congress: Earth Day (opens in new tab)
You may be surprised to learn that prior to 1970, there were no federal environmental laws protecting our air or water. Learn how rising public demand to protect the environment led to the first Earth Day, seminal environmental legislation, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Introduction to Earth Day (opens in new tab)
This standards-aligned lesson for grades 3-5 is a great introduction to the history and aims of Earth Day, in the U.S. and around the globe. Note the link for the National Geographic Explorer! magazine article “Celebrate Earth,” referred to in step 2.
Plastic in the Pacific (opens in new tab)
Everyone knows we should recycle plastic. But what happens to the vast majority of our plastic “recycled” waste? PBS Learning Media’s standards-aligned lesson for grades 6-12 explores how our oceans have become a repository for tons of plastic waste. Shareable via Google Classroom or customizable link.
Bill Nye: We are not going to live on Mars, let alone turn it into Earth (opens in new tab)
From the day we’re born, every human being lives within the gentle embrace of Earth’s atmosphere, gravity, temperature, presence of liquid water, and other features that make life not just feasible, but flourishing. Having trouble feeling grateful for these aspects we take for granted? Read what Science Guy Bill Nye has to say about life on our neighbor Mars to come back to reality.
The Lorax Project (opens in new tab)
Great ideas for a stimulating classroom discussion about how human society treats the Earth, as seen through the lens of Dr. Seuss’ cautionary environmental tale, The Lorax.
Earth-Now App iOS (opens in new tab) Android (opens in new tab)
From NASA, the free Earth Now app provides 3D interactive maps displaying the most recent satellite-generated climate data. Explore the latest data on temperature, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and other key environmental variables.
Teachers Pay Teachers Free Earth Day Resources (opens in new tab)
A fine collection of teacher-developed lessons and activities for Earth Day. Sortable by grade, standard, subject, format, and rating. Reviews by fellow teachers provide a useful appraisal for your consideration.
Chemists Celebrate Earth Week (opens in new tab)
The word “chemical” gets a bad rap around Earth Day. Yet, literally every substance in the universe, whether natural or human-made, is a chemical. Chemists celebrate Earth Week with fun online science games, lessons, and activities. Be sure to check out the illustrated poetry contest for K-12 students.
World Wildlife Fund Lesson Library and Education Resources (opens in new tab)
The effects of human activities on the Earth is sadly reflected in the severe reduction of animal species and their habitats across the globe. The WWF offers a robust set of lessons, apps, games, quizzes, and videos covering the top charismatic animals—tigers, turtles, and monarch butterflies—as well as reptiles, food and plastic waste, wildlife arts and crafts, and more.
Measure what you treasure (opens in new tab)
What’s your ecological footprint? This simple-to-use but sophisticated resource calculator takes facts about your daily energy use, eating habits, and other key factors and converts it all into a measure of your “footprint” on the Earth. Unique among such calculators, the Ecological Footprint compares your resource demand to the Earth's ability to regenerate. Fascinating.
Climate Restoration for Kids (opens in new tab)
The goals of climate restoration go well beyond limiting our CO2 emissions. Climate restoration advocates believe that we can capture and sequester enough carbon from the atmosphere to reverse the anthropogenic effects. In this interactive online course for grades 3-5, kids will learn about climate change, the carbon cycle, and climate restoration. Includes a quiz and art and writing competitions.
TEDEd: Earth School (opens in new tab)
Enroll in TEDEd’s free Earth school and dive into 30 lessons covering the full gamut of issues, from transport to food to people and society and many more. Each video lesson includes open-ended and multiple choice discussion questions and additional resources for further study.
Lesson Plans, Teacher Guides and Online Environmental Resources for Educators (opens in new tab)
Strong collection of K-12 environmental teaching resources, comprising lesson plans, experiments, curricula, digital books, and virtual activities. Explore topics such as air quality, transportation, watersheds, radiation, and more. Remember acid rain? That’s here too—and it’s an ideal topic to teach as an example of effective national response to pollution.