Parents are worriers. At any given moment there is a constant stream of questions and concerns running through their heads. Are my children ready for the school day? Are they wearing clean socks? Have they been to the dentist recently? Are we saving enough for college? Are we raising a good person? What kind of world am I leaving behind for my kids?
It’s that last question that’s become increasingly important these days, as the world faces the often disastrous impact of long-term climate change. One way we as parents can ease our worries and breathe a little easier is to enroll our children in schools that practice and teach active stewardship of the environment. Students and teachers at these schools work together to achieve a sustainable future, one that begins on campus and expands outward. Private schools are again leading the way in this type of initiative, as they have the flexibility and freedom to create curriculum based on the principles of global citizenship.
Establishing and maintaining a strong connection with nature is an important part of developing a young person’s heart, mind, and body. Because of this, institutions like The Branch School (TBS) are recognizing the need to educate students on the ways humanity impacts the environment and then giving them hands-on learning experiences with the natural world so they become invested in building a more sustainable future.
At The Branch School, that means students participate in the Outdoor Classroom, a staple of the curriculum. Students interact with the local ecosystem by working in the pocket prairie, studying the 24 on-campus nestboxes, and observing the pond and bog system on school grounds. These healthy learning environments connect TBS students with nature, and provide them with the knowledge, values, and long-term vision they need to help our planet recover from decades of neglect and abuse.
Thanks to programs like the Outdoor Classroom, students are able to apply what they learn indoors to the outside world. They can use the STEAM content knowledge taught by their classroom instructors to look at the relationships between people and their natural environments, or apply math and science concepts to the issue of how we should all strive for a sustainable way of life. Classrooms shouldn’t be limited by the walls of the school, and learning to care about the environment, to steward its health into the long-term future, removes these barriers. In other words, stepping outside the classroom should cut the number of times a teacher is asked “When are we ever going to use this?” by at least 50%.
Teaching students to care for and respect their environment enhances learning and reinforces classroom concepts, that much is obvious. These are things parents and educators care passionately about, but what do students think of all this? Do they understand the opportunity they’ve been given? Does teaching them how to care about the natural world actually have an impact? I can’t speak for everyone, but the answer is a resounding yes when it comes to my 5th grader.
Getting kids up in the morning can be difficult, but I’ve found the task much easier on days my student knows she’ll be spending time outside. The phrase, “Yay! It’s Outdoor Classroom day!” has been said more than a few times while we’re getting ready at home or driving to school. She comes home eager to talk about the plants she identified or the animals she learned about during the day, or even the science behind how the two coexist in symbiotic relationships. I take recycling seriously, but I’ve got nothing on my daughter who, on more than one occasion, has dug an aluminum can out of the trash, rinsed it out, and added it to our recycle bin. Both parents have been on the receiving end of some serious side-eye when this happens.
Children are much more capable of caring about the Earth than we give them credit for, and private schools like The Branch School give them the opportunity to put that caring into practice. They foster a love of the environment most schools leave out of their curriculum, and create unique opportunities for students to practice conservation. Success in a 21st Century school should be judged by more than test scores; it should be judged by the ability to make sustainability and the environment a cornerstone of the educational experience. More and more, private schools are passing this test with flying colors.