As a lawyer, I am not one who readily gives opinions on the best way to educate kids. To me, so much environmental education seems focused on asking young people to solve the problems that older generations like mine have created. But telling a third grader it is his or her job to save the planet or prevent the next BP Oil Spill is a burden no child should have to bear.
A great new education program called Grades of Green focuses on how each child can reduce his or her own impact on the planet, and in the process often educates parents about the issues too.
The program began when parent-volunteers decided to develop a hands-on, sustainability program at local schools in Southern California. They started with the simple idea of making environmental protection second nature in young minds -- by making it fun and easy.
Take Trash-Free Tuesdays, for example. How simple is it to pack a lunch that doesn't generate extra trash? Leave out the zip-lock bags, use reusable containers, and think about the food you pack and give to your kids. And what if the school put the same thought into the meals it prepares? By doing so, families and schools can greatly reduce the amount of trash they generate -- and they can save money at the same time.
At Grand View Elementary School in Manhattan Beach, California, where they combined Trash-Free Lunches with Campus Composting, the school has reduced its lunchtime waste by 90%, from 30 bags a day to just three bags. That is a remarkable achievement, and it all started by just focusing on one day of the week and then expanding efforts. The program reinforces the notion that explaining things in bite-sized pieces creates a simple and effective learning environment.
Students at Grand View Elementary School show off their lunchtime composting unit.
Like Tuesday, each day of the week has a special meaning in the classroom:
Make a Difference Mondays (Do something Monday to help the environment)
Trash Free Tuesdays (Bring a lunch that doesn't generate trash)
Walk to School Wednesdays (Walk or wheel to school)
[de]Tox Thursdays (Spotlight toxic chemicals and offer natural alternatives)
Freaky Fridays (Spotlight how students can get involved with global causes)
In this way, kids can be exposed to ideas without being overwhelmed with the complexity of environmental issues. Start slow and ramp things up as everyone gets comfortable. What's more, each of the lesson plans contains specific, step-by-step instructions for the tool or activity, including photos, video clips, helpful products, and artwork to provide schools with immediate start-up capability.
Of course, not all of these actions are easily duplicated in every school. In many communities, kids can't walk to school alone or have too far to travel, so taking the bus or carpooling is the only option. But the point is that if every child is given the opportunity to think each day about how to live in a more environmentally friendly way, then we can all make a collective difference and grow to be better stewards of the planet.
The Grades of Green program has already won the acclaim of the U.S. EPA, receiving its 2009 Environmental Award , and won the U.S. Mayoral Conference "National" Award for Successful Public/Private Partnership.
I am delighted to be joining the Board of Directors of Grades of Green and am excited to learn more about all the things young people are doing to make a difference for our environment. I am sure I will learn a lot.
Follow Steve Fleischli on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NRDCWater