Earth Day Ideas From My School to Yours

At The Park School in Brookline, MA, where I teach fourth grade, we do the things that most schools do, but we have also been working to connect with and protect the environment.
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"Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart." ― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

At The Park School in Brookline, MA, where I teach fourth grade, we do the things most schools do, but we also work to connect with and protect the environment. We strive to do this through projects that inspire, empower, and educate kids while also helping the community. With April being Earth Month, maybe you are searching for green activities for your school?

Although there is more my school could be doing and this work is never done, I am proud to share several ideas below. Perhaps your school might like to try one?

1. First of all, if we want kids (and adults, as well!) to appreciate and protect the natural world, they must befriend and then savor the outdoor environment. As David Sobel says, "We need to give [kids] time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it." Examples of this are taking kids on nature walks, camping, studying campus ecology, or other such hands-on experiences. This must come first, especially at younger ages. For many years, our community has seen our 1st-3rd grade Science teacher, Brian Cassie, taking students outside for such connections and explorations on a regular basis counting butterflies, listening for birds, composting, and other activities. I wish I was in his class! Our sixth graders go camping and hike Mt. Monadnock each fall. First comes "connecting," then comes "protecting," but then of course, back to "connecting," hopefully starting a cycle for a lifetime.

2. Nine years ago, we started our school's popular recycling program. Fourth graders collect 20,000 pounds of paper and cardboard each year in small teams at recess. Children crave such helpful, "real" work. Also, they dress up like super heroes which makes it doubly cool! Third grade students collect bottles and cans. That first year we made this video to help educate our community. Such outreach and study improves and transforms "community service" into "service learning."

3. Eight years ago, we started our faculty and staff green committee called the "Green Think Tank" to organize green projects and to work with a parents' Green Committee. These groups support each other and our kids! Is there a Green Committee at your school? If not, try to establish one. You will need the support of a team to get the most out of this work. Be sure an administrator is included in the committee. Come up with a mission statement, and then a strategic plan. Magic will happen, but it will be hard. Support each other.

4. Seven years ago, Park School helped lead a Step It Up Rally in Boston which was one of many across the country calling for climate action (later this movement become Several Park parents and teachers helped organize the event with Boston Climate Action Network. Park students marched and sang. Click here to see the Park student Freedom Choir singing at the rally! Can you get your music teacher to look into songs about the environment or green work? Can you find similar rallies to join in your community? (Any such "activism" has to be optional for kids, obviously.)

5. Six years ago, we started our Catalog Canceling Challenge project! After a live interview on the Today Show with Ann Curry and later on Opera's OWN network, along with the building of the CCC website, almost 10,000 children have joined the project! Perhaps you can host a month long catalog canceling drive at your school?

6. Five years ago, led by teacher Kat Callard and parent Nancy Pinchera, we started a Student Garden Club. In the fall and spring on Friday mornings from 7:15-8:00a.m. Kids, parents, and faculty get their hands dirty and learn how to raise their own food. School gardens have much potential, not just for learning to grow food, but for connections to nature, improved Science curriculum, and community building.

7. Four years ago, Raine Miller's Kindergarteners built a wind turbine with the help of our Head of Maintenance, Mike Massaro! Watch this video about their project. It's still blowing to this day! Building is such an engaging and important part of learning. While studying ancient Greek architecture, my students decided to build a temple to the god "Recycleus" out of several hundred old plastic bottles. They learned much in the process about research, math, teamwork, writing, art, architecture, and reusing!

8. Three years ago, our recess "Paper Club" attempted to get our town of Brookline, MA, to create a law where citizens could opt-out of receiving unwanted phone books. Even though not successful, students researched, surveyed interest, wrote letters, and read them before the Board of Selectman. We learned a lot!

9. Two years ago, a fourth grade class started a petition asking Universal Studios to put environmental education information and links into their Lorax movie website. After stacking up 57,000 signatures, it worked! Universal Studios changed their website. Some Park School kids were Dianne Sawyer and ABC News' "Persons of the Week." In addition, Nicholas Kristof applauded their efforts recognizing the capacity of fourth graders to change the world in the New York Times! They even won an "EPA Environmental Merit Award. Amazing! Petition projects have much opportunity for researching, planning, persuasive essay writing, movie making, and marketing. Oh ... and they work. They give power to those usually without. As Thomas Friedman has observed, the world is now flat.

10. Last year, many Park 4th graders assisted Land Wilson and The Sun Valley School's "Kids Who Care" in California with their petition to Crayola to set up a marker take-back program for used up markers. It worked! It was empowering to join with other students in CA and PA to create positive change through teamwork.

This Crayola project as well as The Catalog Canceling Challenge have me thinking, "How could we improve this world if millions of children could connect, brainstorm, problem solve, and tell the world what they think needs to happen to protect their future from challenges such as climate change?" Would those in power listen if kids raised their voices loud enough? Or if their teachers and parents did? Right now, my concern relates to whether many leaders' drive for reelection or strong quarterly earnings takes precedence over their own children's future wellbeing. Such nearsightedness frightens me. Yet in this important work of teaching, we must remain hopeful and excited for the next great breakthrough from thermonuclear fusion to 1st grade classroom red wiggler vermicomposting. The solutions are out there! As Richard Louv writes, "Progress does not have to be patented to be worthwhile. Progress can also be measured by our interactions with nature and its preservation. Can we teach children to look at a flower and see all the things it represents: beauty, the health of an ecosystem, and the potential for healing?"

11. One year ago, we started this petition aimed at three catalog companies. Here's a video we made where our Paper Club adapted an Alicia Keys' song. Although the petition has not been successful, Alicia Keys liked the idea and the kids' song when we asked for permission to put it on-line. She even sent us a video!! As you can see here and above, schools' "green work" is not only important, but inspiring to others in the media and beyond. Kids taking on serious, creative work and not being stuck feeling powerless or numb in the daily grind is truly special. I wish more adults felt such power. Real environmental study and action is the spark for such passion. It is my hope that it would be a lifelong calling.

Photo via Park School Community

We have a pre-K through 4th grade
Earth Day Assembly
each April for 250 kids. We pick a theme or a book for all the classrooms to read and do projects around. Then we come together and celebrate Earth! Some themes of the past few years include books such as "The Lorax," and the next year, "Owl Moon." Last year we chose three nature poems for the school to focus on and rally around. This year we're going with a seemingly simple, but rich topic - "Trees!"
Next month our community is
sponsoring and/or
planting 125 trees
not only on campus, but around the world for Earth Day and also for our school's 125th anniversary! The kids are picking locations and tree types. The first planting was a camphor tree a few days ago at the Greentown School in Hangzhou China by our Mandarin teacher Mulian Chen and some 9th grade students currently traveling there. Fifth graders are making bonsai as they study Japan. An idea from 4th graders who study Greece and recycling was to plant olive trees in big recycling bin pots!
Currently, several fourth and fifth grade students are displeased that
Dunkin' Donuts
uses about one billion styrofoam per year when serving their coffee. They started a petition, and my class is helping their cause. Stay tuned! This is our new "big idea" to creatively study and support.

There are many other "green ideas" out there which include full environmental science curricula, no-idoling zones, use of green school cleaning supplies, rooftop solar panels, raising farm animals, and e-waste recycling and disposal days. Such practice and learning not only improves our educational practices, but they can also help the planet.

This intersection of environmental education, service learning, and improved teaching practices is a powerful "sweet spot" to which our communities aspire. My school has been fortunate enough to witness this a few times -- it's pretty special, and I hope some of the ideas above light a spark in your mind and in your school. Run them by your Green Committee, a principal, or colleague and see if one is the right fit for you! Tis' the season. Happy Earth Day 2014!

Email me at if you have any questions about these opportunities. I would be pleased to answer any questions - this work is my passion, and I would like to help make it yours!

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