How to bring green into the classroom

Environment Friendly Living

With reporting by Kenny Luna, Meaghan O’Neill and

Manon Verchot

School teachers, listen up! This is a call for help. You are one of the first lines of defense in the environmental movement. In a few short years, the upcoming generation will decide the fate of this planet. And when it comes to how to teach children science, math, and geography, you’re the best at it. The interdisciplinary skills they learn today will be the planet-saving skills they enlist tomorrow. Now, we know that’s a lot to bear on your shoulders, so we’ve put together a guide that will help you in the classroom–and outside it, too.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to help children develop a connection to the environment, through both learning and experience. We know that most of you go back-to-school in September, and we have it on good intelligence that some teachers are spending their summers traveling and golfing, rather than working out lesson plans. We certainly don’t take issue with that, and we have a handy cheat sheet to going green for school teachers.

From hands-on projects to personal responsibility, the tips, projects, and concepts outlined in this guide take a community-based approach to learning about environmental issues. You may not be able to implement a school-wide recycling or composting program, but you can teach the principles of zero-waste within the domain of your own classroom. And while you may not be able to get the janitorial staff to swap out for greener cleaners, you can show kids how to make your own eco-friendly cleaners from vinegar and water. Greening your school doesn’t have to be about getting grants for solar panels and building a rain-water collection system. Those things are great, but it can also be as simple as opening the eyes of a child to the native plants just beyond the playground, or helping a student calculate the carbon footprint of his trip to school. Whether you’re in an urban, suburban, exurban, or rural location, and no matter if you’re a public or private school employee, you can choose this call to arms. Regardless of budget or setting, there’s a lot every teacher can do to inspire his students to make the world a little greener.

Top Green School Teacher Tips

  1. Connect the Dots

    Instilling a sense of connectedness to nature and the environment–be it a forest, field, or urban landscape–is essential to helping fledgling TreeHuggers care about the world around them. To teach your students about global issues such as climate change and endangered species, look to local issues such as recycling, storm-water runoff, or air pollution.

    Making it personal

    and connecting it to your community makes it real.

  2. Calculate Your Carbon Footprint

    Carbon and environmental

    footprint calculators

    help us see how much impact we have on the world around us. If everyone in the world lived like we did, we’d need five planets worth of resources to sustain life as we need know it! Using these online tools as fun games can really drive home the point of what kind of impact each of us has. Learn about your environmental footprint and check out some of our favorite carbon footprint calculators. Then create a plan to reduce your group footprint.

  3. Conduct an Energy Audit in the Classroom

    You don’t have get too technical to teach your students about energy use; you can simply take stock of where and how you’re using energy, by assessing where in the classroom energy is going (and being wasted). A simple energy audit can help out. How many lights are on? Is there heat or A/C? Do the computers get left on at night? Determine where you can cut back, then create a checklist kids can follow every day. Adjusting computer monitor settings, turning the lights off before recess, have a “lights-off” hour once per week, and so on can help raise awareness. If you do want to physically measure the energy you are using, the


    is a great, inexpensive measurement tool.

  4. Get to School Greenly

    Biking, walking, public transportation or the bus to school

    can all help

    reduce carbon emissions. Biking to school has even has health benefits and

    has been shown

    to be more important for kids than breakfast! Lead by example and try green transport options for yourself. Discuss with students their experiences in getting to school more greenly. What was better? What was annoying? Websites that can help include:

    • Cancel a Car
    • Follow Safe Routes for Kids
    • “Walking” Buses

  5. Green Your Supplies in the Classroom

    Whether or not you have the support of your school, you can do your best to

    green your classroom supplies

    by choosing environmentally friendly new materials when possible, and also starting a classroom program to collect and reuse gently used supplies from past and present students. If possible, choose 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper. You can also make your own notebooks from old paper.

  6. Start a Zero-Waste-in-the-Classroom Policy

    School-wide recycling is a brilliant move…but implementing can be tougher than teaching long division to an eight-year-old. If your school isn’t recycling at-large, start a classroom-wide policy of ”


    .” Set up recycling bins (teachers, students, and parents can volunteer to be responsible for removal), audit how much rubbish is created in a day. Sorting trash (it doesn’t have to be gross) will help kids understand how much waste they are creating in a day, and where it’s all coming from. Challenge kids to pack zero-waste lunches by using reusable bottles, containers, and satchels, rather than disposable ones. Competing with another classroom to see who can reduce their waste output most is a great way to create healthy competition and less waste.

  7. Grow a Garden, or Just Take a Nature Walk

    Creating a garden or “backyard habitat” on school grounds is great for experiential learning. Growing food and native plants

    can really help kids

    connect with the world just outside their door, as well as the food chain and sustainable agriculture. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation offers lots of great


    . If a garden is not happening, a romp around school grounds will help teach about natural wonders. Even in urban settings, trees, grasses, and wildlife abound. Get kids to pay attention the environment that is all around them.

  8. Compost–Outdoors or In!

    Getting back to zero-waste, starting a compost pile is a great way to make the connection between food, waste, and the nature at work! If an outdoor composter is out of the question, consider getting a worm bin for the classroom. (It’s not as crazy as it sounds! Check out how-to tips for

    starting worm bins

    or get more tips at



  9. Bring Nature Indoors

    Whether you’re in the city or the country, any classroom can bring plants into the mix. It’s easy to build a self-watering

    plant container

    and get kids growing right in the classroom. You can also bring experts in the classroom. Field trips can get complicated and expensive; often nature centers, recycling facilities, and so on are willing to send volunteers or staff members to schools for in-house demonstrations. Added lesson: Explain that bringing one person to many means cutting down on carbon emissions due to transportation.

  10. Make the PTA Work for You

    Work with your community to identify group goals. From easy, inexpensive changes such as switching to greener cleaning supplies and swapping out light bulbs to major changes such building energy-efficient, green

    school buildings

    or getting local

    farm-fresh food into cafeterias

    , green changes often happen due to grassroots efforts. The

    Go Green Initiative

    , founded by mother and ex-PTA maven Jill Buck, has loads of advice. The group’s ultimate goal is to unite parent-teacher associations across the country in an effort to help bring environmental programs into the school via parents, while giving teachers more time to focus on using those programs in the classroom, rather than having to organize them on their own.

Green Schools: By the Numbers

  • 27:

    Percentage of the American population that goes to school every day.

  • 32:

    Percentage of water savings in green schools versus conventional ones.

  • $20 billion:

    Amount of money that could have been saved by 2015 if all new educational facility construction and renovations were built to be green schools.

  • 30-50:

    Percentage energy savings of LEED-certified green schools as compared with conventionally built schools.

  • 26:

    Percentage of improvement for students learning to read in spaces with lots of daylight compared to those without.

  • 38:

    Percentage reduction in asthma in children studying in schools with improved indoor air quality.


USGBC Center for Green Schools


The Heschong Mahone Daylighting Study (pdf)


Greening America’s Schools


Green Schools and School Teachers: Getting Techie

LEED-Certified Green School Buildings

According to the

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