With the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) having taken place in Glasgow earlier this month, climate action is in the spotlight as determined minds gathered to map out a more sustainable, resilient, and zero-carbon future. And it’s the inheritors of this world – our children – that Green School South Africa is empowering with the knowledge, know-how and will to alleviate the pressure on our precious planet and sharing their approach with others in order to do the same.
“Green School South Africa is at the forefront in education for sustainability. With over a decade’s experience in HOW to teach children about environmental challenges, the network of schools has much to share with other schools,” says Head of School, Andy Wood.
“Climate change with its devastating consequences is a delicate discussion. However, if approached sensitively and in an enabling spirit, these talks inevitably instill a sense of responsibility and purpose. We speak to children about environmental challenges in a way that inspires them to be change-makers,” he explains. “The aim is not to overwhelm or scare them, but to encourage control and an intent to take action.”
The school, which opened its doors in February 2021, is the third in a growing network of global schools that educates for sustainability with community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning, all in a natural environment. Its approach is a structured, well-thought-out strategy based on David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia. Green School South Africa has used the stepping-stones laid out in the book to develop a comprehensive plan that doesn’t dwell on the negative, but instead builds a real sense of wonder, joy and connection to nature. Through this appreciation, children develop an intrinsic desire to protect what they have come to love and are less likely to succumb to ecophobia, a feeling of powerlessness to prevent cataclysmic environmental change.
Sowing the seeds
Beginning with three- to seven-year-olds, the focus is on empathy. These young people are encouraged to find animal allies and view themselves as part of nature. At this age, children are still full of wonder and joy and are encouraged to embrace this, develop a firm bond with the natural world, and see the outdoors as an infinite playground.
From eight to ten, school kids are taught about habitats and landscapes. They learn more concrete concepts, work with maps and orienteering, and are given a more geographical understanding and the context within which they exist. Symbiosis with nature remains the common thread throughout, and 11- to 13-year-olds are taught to focus on the world through the eyes of their animal allies, and how the changing environment impacts their lives. They are introduced to environmental pollution and encouraged to think of ways to empower the animal world. “What we instill is an ability to discern how human actions, both good and bad, can dramatically alter the quality of life in the environmental bubble that they have come to care so much about,” says Julie-Ann Coppinger, a teacher at Green School South Africa.
Middle school teenagers are introduced to social action and learn how environmental issues impact the quality of life. Then, by the time they reach high school, these youngsters are confident in their power to change the world. Their capacity has been built, and they feel empowered and connected enough to make a difference. They are now asked to contribute to the discussion, urged to debate pros and cons, find solutions and state their opinions on a wide range of subjects, from consumption and recycling to circular economies and ecological footprints.
There’s a ripple effect to this approach. Children slowly expand both their understanding of the challenges and their belief in the power to tackle them. Having understood how climate change impacts their school and town, they can then think of solutions for their country and eventually the world. Because at the end of the day, it’s all about solving problems. “We don’t introduce challenges without speaking to solutions,” says Coppinger. And it’s this practicality – coupled with a deep love of nature and a belief in our collective power to turn the tide – that is empowering pupils at Green School South Africa to actively shape a better world.