“When young people are empowered to do something meaningful, something they can be proud of, it can do wonders for their confidence and respect.”
As reported in MiNDFOOD, a New Zealand “smart-thinking” magazine, New Zealand schools are training a new generation of ecologists. School-aged children across the country are learning how to lessen their ecological footprint and help to clean up the natural world around them. From banning over-packaged snack foods to cleaning out polluted riverbeds, the “Enviroschools” program is teaching Kiwi kids how to “think green.”
Beginning as a partnership of city councils, environmental groups and schools, Enviroschools was born in Hamilton, a small city south of Auckland, and has now become a well-respected, nationwide program, complete with a professional development plan to train facilitators. In 1998, the Hamilton City Council employed Heidi Mardon, a sustainable architect, as director of the program.
“Enviroschools is all about empowering kids to live sustainably… It’s about young people exploring and connecting with their environment,” says Heidi Mardon. “What’s amazing to see is that kids who started Envirogroups in intermediate school (Junior High) are initiating projects in their secondary school (college). Sustainability is just part of their life.”
At one participating intermediate school, students studied ecological buildings, which empowered them to participate in creating ecological features for the retrofitting of classrooms. At another school, students rallied their whole community to participate in cleaning up the pollution in their local river. A participating kindergarten introduced a “litterless lunch” policy. One primary school actually transformed a polluted gully into an environmental trail, including an amphitheatre, paths, boardwalks, terraced gardens and more than 4000 species planted by the students themselves. The school’s curriculum has now been re-designed with special emphasis on environmental science.
Besides the obvious environmental benefits of the program, schools are also finding that they experience financial savings due to reduced resource consumption and waste. The program also helps to transform the way the students think and learn, with participating schools reporting an increase in student motivation. And perhaps most interesting, the program also has an effect on the children’s behavior, with improved social conditions in schools, and reduced bullying and vandalism.
“Enviroschools is not just about planting trees,” Mardon says. “It’s a sophisticated way that young people are thinking, which then has an impact on things they are doing. A mother was recently telling me she was in the supermarket with her son when she reached for a heavily packaged snack food. Her son said, ‘Are you serious, Mum? That stuff is a killer for the environment,’ and he made her put it back on the shelf.”
The Ministry of Education has recently granted the foundation a four-year funding contract. More than 20% of New Zealand schools participate in the program and the number grows every year. Some early childhood centers are even signing up.
This is the kind of program that could really change the world. Humanity is so out of touch with the fundamental principles of respect for the Earth and its inhabitants, that it’s hard not to wonder whether we will ever be able to climb out of the mess we have created. Teaching our children basic respect for the environment and how to live accordingly seems to be one of the most important things we could do right now.
The Enviroschools program offers children the tools with which to become caring stewards of their environment. If these are the children of the future, then I believe there is hope after all.