A+ for planet-friendly classrooms

Hands-on experiences teach students to waste less and care more

By Heather Laura Clarke

It all started with an empty juice box.

During “circle time” on the floor with her Grade 3 students last year, teacher Laura Kennedy passed around an empty juice box and asked them to tell her what it was. After guesses like box, carton, and rectangle, one student shouted, “Refundable!”

“We talked about how each juice box is worth a nickel, and sometimes people will just leave a nickel lying on the ground,” says Kennedy, who teaches at Sir Charles Tupper Elementary in Halifax. “We also talked about what we could do with the money if we collected all the empty juice boxes in the school.”

Her students started collecting refundables in special bins and redeemed them for more than $200 in a single school year. When the school received an unexpected donation of travel-sized toothpastes, Kennedy and her students used their juice box money to buy other toiletries to make “Kindness Kits.”

They created an assembly line in the classroom and filled 30 plastic bags with tissues, toothbrushes, floss picks, cough drops, hand sanitizers, and snacks. They donated them to St. Mary’s Basilica and Hope Cottage and went on to make larger Kindness Baskets, laundry hampers heaped with everything from toiletries to socks and towels, to donate to Adsum for Women and Children.

So far this school year, Kennedy says her Grade 4 and 5 class has “hit the ground running” and collected more than $10 in refundables towards another charitable project. Vice Principal Erica Phillips says, “Everyone knows to bring their refundables to Ms. Kennedy’s class.”

Phillips teaches Grade 3 at Sir Charles Tupper, and last year she helped the school build eight raised garden beds that could serve as an outdoor classroom. She says it’s good for students to see that food “doesn’t just appear in grocery stores,” and get their hands dirty growing it themselves.

She and her class recently harvested their cucumbers and she used her dehydrator to make cucumber chips for everyone to taste. When they harvested their carrots and zucchinis, she baked them into muffins. Numerous parents emailed her for the recipe because they couldn’t believe their children ate veggie muffins and liked them.

“When children grow vegetables themselves, they’re much more willing to eat them,” Phillips says. “My kid has onion breath most of the time because she loves to pop into the garden at home and grab some chives.”

She says gardening’s a perfect fit for Grade 3 because the curriculum covers plants and soil. She emailed parents over the summer to suggest they collect soil samples from anywhere they went on vacation, and in the fall her class got to study samples from Kejimkujik, P.E.I., Cape Cod, and even Oregon.

Phillips says the Tomatosphere program is a hit with students of all ages, and she incorporates it into her curriculum every year. Students plant two identical-looking sets of tomato seeds and track their growth, but one seed package has been to the International Space Station and grows “space tomatoes.”

“We’re very much in the centre of Halifax and this isn’t farmland, but we can garden on our back patios and porches or in a little raised bed,” Phillips says. “There’s nothing better than watching a kid pull out a carrot; that look of shock and awe that they grew it from a tiny seed, and now it’s something they can eat.”

Schools across Nova Scotia are bringing in guest speakers to help students learn how to lead more environmentally-friendly lives.

Green Schools Nova Scotia is an Efficiency Nova Scotia program that worked with more than 900 school groups last year alone. Its website contains hundreds of free online resources for teachers to download and print, and so far, its engagement officers have visited nearly two-thirds of all schools in Nova Scotia.

Green Schools Nova Scotia’s program coordinator, Colleen Freake, says many students already understand about turning off lights when they leave a room and not running the tap while they brush their teeth, but there’s always more to learn.

She says Green Schools Nova Scotia engagement officers try to work with the teacher to integrate with the curriculum, so they might do a Language Arts tie-in with a question-and-answer version of “Energy Bingo.”

“Kids really care about the environment, and this reaches them where they are,” Freake says. “They’re taking it all in, and then they’re going home and chatting about it with their parents.”

Clean Foundation’s environmental superhero, Eddie the cat, is helping an entire generation learn about and care for the environment.

The Clean Foundation’s EnviroEd team has been visiting schools for years to talk about green solutions, but they started making huge strides in 2009 when they hired an unexpected environmental superhero: a cat named Eddie.

The loveable singing puppet brings his “Litterless Road Tour” to elementary schools and community groups across the province, accompanied by Enviro Educators Kari Riddell or Amanda Ring, to talk about the importance of keeping the earth clean.

He’s been challenging children and their parents to pack a “waste-less lunch,” by introducing them to his friend, Norman, a one-winged falcon at Hope for Wildlife.

“The kids hear about how Norman’s habitat was destroyed by litter, and Eddie asks them to please help out his friend. It’s amazing to see how they respond to him,” says Riddell, one of Eddie’s puppeteers. “Having a mascot makes it more magical for the kids and it helps them remember the experience.”

After Eddie issues the challenge, the EnviroEd team sends the students home with lunch bag tags to serve as reminders. It certainly worked for Clean program manager Lauren Murphy’s son. He saw Eddie’s show three years ago and still insists his lunch doesn’t contain any disposable plastic.

Once a class was so inspired after Eddie’s presentation that they secured a solar panel for the roof of their portable classroom. Another group of students once rushed outside to pick up trash at the neighbouring junior high school.

“The principal had no idea why these elementary-aged students were picking up garbage over there, and they just kept saying, ‘This is for Eddie! Eddie told us to do this,’” Ring says. “He only found out later that Eddie was a puppet!”

The Clean Foundation also organizes interactive workshops for older students. Grade 6 classes can learn about wind, solar, and marine technology, and build circuits powered by renewable energy. Grade 7 classes can collect water samples from local streams and learn about creatures in their local habitat.

Phillips says it’s important for students of all ages to learn what they can do to preserve our natural environment, because they’re the ones who are going to inherit it.

“Today’s children are the people who will be taking care of us and the environment when we’re older,” Phillips says. “They’re little sponges right now. We just need to show them how to be respectful of living things and give them the hands-on experience to take over for us.”

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