Every Monday morning, bright-eyed kindergarten and grade one students from South Carvolth Environmental School in Langley, BC, trek through Campbell Valley Regional Park to check out what’s new this week.
“They’re really aware,” teacher Shauna Aranas says proudly of her group. “When we go for walks, the kids are bringing plastic bags and gloves. They’re saying we need to clean up. It’s not me generating these ideas. It’s them.”
In Alberta, Mr. Zinken’s class at Tofield School discovers they can save $31.16 per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 254.61 kilograms by turning off the lights when they take their 45-minute lunch break.
At the Upper Canada College in the heart of Toronto, grade five students intending to make tea bags gather lemon balm and mint from the school’s courtyard herb and vegetable garden while an art class looks on.
To the north, the Environmental Club at Aqsarniit Middle School in Iqaluit, Nunavut helps convince city council to continue its recycling program and starts a green bin program for recycling paper.
Across Canada, schools are taking environmental education to a new level, moving beyond the traditional once-a-week biology or geology lessons of old. Not only do many students now learn to understand nature through effective, hands-on, and relevant assignments, but they’re also sent a very positive message–that each of us can help reduce humanity’s ecological footprint on earth.
A Community’s Commitment
Perhaps the newest of our eco-educators is South Carvolth. Although built in 1963, 2005/06 is only the second year the public elementary school has implemented the all-environmental policy passed by their board in an effort to boost attendance and save the school from its once threatened closure.
Their location adjacent to Campbell Valley Regional Park–1,400 acres with lots of trails, horses, hiking, and ponds–provides an impressive living classroom for their eight teachers and 81 students. Upper grades can study science and do projects while crouched on the water banks or sitting beneath massive trees. Younger grades first learn forest etiquette and develop their observational skills, even to identify foreign objects along an “un-nature” trail where masking tape, pens, paper, and plastic toys have been camouflaged for students to find and pick up.
For mother Kelli Gabel, this green philosophy was a big draw when she was looking for a new school for her two sons, Jesse, 8, and Coltyn, 9. “I liked the concept of learning about nature and working together to better the planet,” she says. Originally she heard of South Carvolth through word of mouth, researched it further, and felt the school’s small size and hands-on approach would be a good match for her boys.
Gabel was right. The school has nurtured the ecological consciousness they were raised to have. One day, for instance, after Jesse’s grade three class studied birdlife, he told his mother how to help keep birds safe. Coltyn’s grade five class, meanwhile, does lots of natural art projects; they recently made painted rocks using the First Nations concept of power animals. One of the animals Coltyn chose and showed his mom was a frog to support him in ways he felt he needed.
School staff often receive calls from prospective parents interested in the school’s intimate size, its eco-teaching, and its rural setting in South Langley, eight blocks from the United States border.
One giant project-in-progress is building a 1,000-square-foot butterfly and vegetable garden in front of the school for outdoor learning about the lifecycles of plants. They’ve just completed an outdoor classroom on a mound, also courtesy of numerous supporters who donated money, soil, rock, sand, and heavy equipment.
“We have lots of community support,” says Dave Auline, the new South Carvolth vice-principal. “It’s a great school–the students, staff, parents. I love being able to use the outdoors whenever we want.” Their partnership with Greater Vancouver Regional District allows them unfettered access to the regional park.
“We hope to have other schools and classes come here in 2006,” he adds. “We want to teach kids to be stewards of the environment, to spread ideas on to other kids and friends.” This includes networking with schools involved in environmental projects in other parts of Canada.
Green Street (www.green-street.ca), a national non-profit organization, fosters these relationships as part of its vision to “offer high-quality environmental learning and sustainability programs that actively engage Canadian elementary and secondary students.”
One concern with environmental education is that students can get overwhelmed, but Green Street works with organizations such as Evergreen, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Sierra Club of BC, and the Safe Drinking Water Foundation to empower students rather than frighten them, to enhance a sense of personal environmental responsibility, and to focus on issues relevant to students. Teachers can easily register online for their multitude of programs and access resources at low or no cost.
Back at South Carvolth, choosing a recent topic to share with their Eco-Pals (pen-pals) in Ontario was easy. “The kids did a project about [Campbell Valley Regional Park],” recalls Aranas. “They got involved: writing and taking pictures of butterflies.”
“They’ve become good at identifying animal tracks and droppings. The first time through the park, they didn’t notice. We have one boy who’s now an animal expert.” A teacher there for seven years, she embraces its new philosophy and how it increases awareness. She has even had parents ask her whether she’d taught about electricity because their children had informed them of ways to conserve energy at home.
If the expression, “Everything you need to know in life, you learn in kindergarten” is true, let’s hope all future generations attend environmental schools like South Carvolth (www.langleyeschool.ca)