By Sharon Oosthoek
Two years ago, a group of Grade 3 students marched into principal Mike Quinn’s office at Bird’s Hill School in East St. Paul, Man., with a plan for planting a tree along a busy road beside their playground. It was just before Earth Day, and their teacher had read them a book about how trees sequester exhaust from cars. “Well, it got the kids asking why we didn’t have more trees in the playground,” recalls Quinn. So the class sent emissaries to ask if they could sell popcorn to raise money to buy a Manitoba spruce. “I couldn’t believe it. They were coming in and selling their idea. And it was a good pitch. They spoke very well,” he says.
Now in Grade 5, the students remain stewards of the environment, taking care of their tree and all the others that have been planted in the schoolyard since. Their enthusiasm infected other students, parents and teachers, and now the whole school is involved in making the outdoor space a natural oasis.
“We water the trees and take care of them,” says 11-year-old Ryley Lindgren, one of the students who launched the naturalization project. “I think most kids are like me ““ they would like a clean, non-polluted environment.” As Quinn points out: “Adults can do anything they want, but if the children don’t buy into it, it goes nowhere.”
Any parent or educator will tell you, children in this age group are coming into their own as people with broader social consciences, and can get really passionate about issues. It’s a good time to make them aware of the environment. As students across the country prepare to celebrate Earth Day, we bring you this list of real-life green initiatives you can pass along to your parent council, your preteen or her teachers.
Have students plan a playground with native plants, rocks, logs and other natural features
At West Richmond Education Centre in Evanston, N.S., a survey showed that students who stayed inside at recess were pining for a big rock to climb on, trees and shrubs for hide-and-seek, and an outdoor classroom. So teachers applied for money from the Evergreen Foundation, a Toronto-based charity that helps fund and plan naturalized urban areas, and began bringing that vision to life. “Now the kids go outside and play,” says principal Ann Whalley. “This is a huge thing for me. I want them out in the fresh air.”
Go with a green teacher gift
Sunningdale Public School in Oakville, Ont., boasts one of the largest green schoolyards in the country. Many students choose to give their teachers donations toward the project instead of holiday or end-of-year gifts. “We raised $1,200 the first year,” says parent Karen Brock.
Connect students to the wider world
When they were studying Mount Kilimanjaro, a group of West Richmond students followed along as Nova Scotia climbers scaled the African peak. The climbers were raising money for a food bank, but while they were on the mountain they took time out to chat with students by satellite phone about Tanzania, home to many threatened species.
If you have a nearby wooded area or wetland, or if your playground is a mini-wilderness, harness students’ natural tendency to be young Marco Polos. At Sunningdale, teacher Maggie Linton leads students on scavenger hunts through the playground. “They have to find a leaf with six points or a type of grass. They id it and check it off,” she says. Back at the outdoor classroom they learn more about the plants.
Chart nature’s progress
Sunningdale’s Linton says middle- grade teachers are mulling over a plan to have students record the growth of playground trees. They envision a logbook with student notations of trunk girth, canopy size and changes in bark that can be passed from class to class over the years.
Sharon Oosthoek is a Toronto writer who hopes to nurture an interest in the environment in her two sons.