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Schools and the environment

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Mother Earth is a child's first teacher. Recognizing the importance of environmental education, private schools have been committed to teaching young people, including preschoolers, about nature, and encouraging green practices.

Now, more than ever, climate change is on the radar of citizens, and more and more educators are realizing their role in raising awareness and promoting action to protect the environment. What's becoming important is reinforcing the connection between nature and students by bringing the classroom outside whenever possible, to link theoretical studies with the natural world. For instance, this is done in forest schools across the country.

From week-long dogsledding adventures and overnight camping trips to growing food in greenhouses, private schools are increasingly looking to develop and expand outdoor and experiential education programs, that allow students to have direct experiences in learning and understanding the world.

Star Academy, Ont.

Facing nature-deficit disorder, today's tech-savvy children need environmental education for their healthy growth and development. "Engagement is key," says Kevin Way, director of experiential education at Greenwood College School in Toronto, Ontario. "When students see the relevance in what they're learning, it helps them in terms of wanting to know more."

At Star Academy, a Montessori school, in Mississauga, Ontario, care for the environment is seamlessly integrated into everyday practices, so students don't even realize they're learning valuable life lessons, explains Kelly Farrell, a teacher at the school. "For example, the students recycle and compost nearly everything in the classroom, and the school only produces one bag of garbage per week," she says.

To support environmental education, Star Academy has a vegetable garden, which students help grow and harvest for a Thanksgiving lunch. "We try to help kids take ownership for the world around them and not take the resources they're afforded for granted," Farrell says.

Like growing a garden, the most powerful way to engage students is to take them outside and integrate all lessons, from science and math to language arts, into experiences with nature, says Tim Grant, editor of Green Teacher, a magazine offering teaching ideas from green educators.

"David Suzuki's daughter was quoted as saying that the fact that her Grade 2 teacher raised monarch butterflies in the classroom really opened her eyes to the transformative power of nature and helped her develop her curiosity about the world," Grant says of Severn Cullis-Suzuki, today an environmental activist. "This type of teaching leads students to ask questions, develop inquiring minds, and remain open to the challenges the Earth is facing."

Q&A on Schools and the Environment with Kevin Way

It's no ordinary week of class. Greenwood College School in Toronto has two outdoor education weeks built into their curriculum. Most students go to overnight camps in Ontario, while the Grade 11 students go to British Columbia in the fall and Algonquin Park in the winter, each time for a week. Kevin Way, director of experiential education, discusses the value of these programs.

Q: What is experiential education?

A: You're sitting in a kayak looking out at the ocean and mountains in B.C. – what a better way to foster environmental stewardship and develop an appreciation for Canadian geography. This form of active learning connects lessons to the environment. It's just a good form of pedagogy to find that connection between the classroom and the real world. This is often pursued in Waldorf schools.

Q: What do your students learn from experiential education?

A: By spending time in nature, students develop a care and respect for the Earth, personal growth, self-confidence, and pride coupled with the ability to have fun while in "school." Also, many students start out feeling homesick and afraid to be spending a week outdoors, and they come home with a new sense of perseverance and resiliency – important 21st-century skills.

Q: How do you incorporate these trips into the curriculum?

A: The trips aren't tied to course work per se, but the students who spend a week at a residential camp do have some classes while there. They'll go outside and study a stream, using the natural environment to learn science. It's also about community building: the Grade 12 students run programs for the younger students, giving them a chance to learn valuable leadership skills and forming bonds between all kids no matter what age or grade.

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