Mom, turn off the water! You’re wasting it,” calls Olivia from the kitchen table as, thanks to a broken dishwasher, I am soaping up pots and pans at the sink.
She’s right. And I like that my daughter, at 10, knows it’s important to save water, turn off lights, recycle and compost. I’m a fairly eco-savvy mom, so she absorbed some of this stuff at home. But schools like hers right across Canada are also getting very hands-on with eco learning.
Thanks to motivated parents, teachers, principals and school board members, green issues are becoming mainstream. But the most exciting, progressive work is what’s being created directly on school grounds, says Cam Collyer, director of Toyota Evergreen Learning Grounds.
Evergreen is just one organization helping schools nationwide create “outdoor classrooms” to give students healthy places to play, learn and develop respect for nature. Take Winnipeg’s John M. King Elementary School: Students and staff decided to turn their landscape into learning zones of Manitoba prairie, interlake and boreal forest, using plants native to these areas. There are also large hills to roll down, numerous paths and trees, a new eco-friendly play structure and kindergarten area.
Sustainable practices have also been woven into the traditional curriculum at Riverdale Elementary School in Edmonton. The school has a native plant demonstration site filled with trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, organic vegetable gardens, log benches, birdhouses, a rain barrel and a prairie grass labyrinth.
Not only does this process of planning, growing and maintaining plants let students experience how things grow, these gardens can have an even greater community impact, as is the case with Winchester School. One of the highest-need schools in the Toronto District School Board, Winchester School is attended by children who mostly live in apartments. So local residents mobilized resources and installed a natural garden, with room for a food garden.
The brainchild of Sunday Harrison, a former Winchester parent and founder of Green Thumbs Growing Kids, the now 1,866-square-foot garden grows peas, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, salad greens, herbs and berries. Students plant and harvest as part of class time, and informally through the Garden Club. This produce is then delivered to kids at Winchester through its hot lunch program, which includes a fresh salad bar, two days a week.
Green Thumbs, which works with three other local schools, also has a new greenhouse program in the works. Students will plant seeds in Toronto’s Allan Gardens this winter, and in spring will transplant these plants into their own school gardens.
So what does all this mean? Besides making families greener, building sustainability into everyday learning sets kids up for a lifetime of caring when it comes to our natural resources, says Brendan Carruthers, environmental education specialist for Manitoba Hydro, which has been funding various educational eco programs in the province for almost a decade.
“As kids grow up and become business people themselves,” he says, “they will bring this environmental lens to the way they work and live.”