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A greener education: rethinking environments


Words by Charlie Clemoes

Illustrations by Stephanie F. Scholz

Children need very little encouragement to go outside and play. Bursting with energy and imagination, they’re ever ready to stretch their legs, get their hands dirty and explore the wild possibilities of nature. So it is a sad reality that the lack of time students spend outdoors is most likely good preparation for a life in which people spend 90% of their time inside, according to the European average. Even so, there are many different ways we can add a little green to the learning environment, and fight our society’s slow-motion sleepwalk to a life spent entirely indoors...

New school concepts

The most obvious place to look for the big progress being made is in new school concepts. Perhaps the shining example is Danish firm 3xn’s plan for a massive Green School in Stockholm, which centres on a greenhouse, extending upwards to feature vertical farms and hanging gardens, with space for education from kindergarten to high school, as well as college dorms and senior apartments for what 3xn affectionately call “a full-lifetime of sustainable living”.

A similar project is the somewhat less pricey Farming Kindergarten in Vietnam, designed by Vo Trong Nghia Architects. The school was built under a tight budget but is intended as a prototype for sustainable school design, where children can learn how to grow their own food.

Plant and other small additions

These examples still leave a lot to be desired, especially when considering the mounting proof that poor air quality in schools has a considerable effect on a child’s learning. Luckily, small additions can also make a big difference. Several studies have shown that the simple introduction of a few plants can drastically improve the distinctly poor air quality present in schools. For instance, a research study published in Environment and Behaviour showed that the introduction of six plants to the back of a Taiwan classroom, led to stronger feelings of comfort and friendliness among students, as well as significantly fewer hours of sick leave and punishment records due to misbehaviour.
One company that has cropped-up to respond to this more immediate solution is Ogreen. By observing which plants purify the air most effectively, Ogreen has introduced the affectionately-named Ogreen Champ, an air-purifying plant which provides 30 square metres of clean air. In this spirit, the website Really Good Stuff also provides a handy list of plants for the classroom. The snake plant tops its list as “one of the toughest houseplants around”, with stiff green leaves that can survive without bright sunlight.

“there is mounting proof that poor air quality in schools has a considerable effect on a child’s learning”

Getting outside

Besides all that, there is of course the option to simply get kids outside during school hours. Leading the way are initiatives such as the “Early Nature Lessons” in Denmark’s so-called “Forest Preschools” and organisations such as the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom in the UK, and the United Stated-based website Tree Hugger, also offer a helpful list of suggestions for how urban schools can introduce outdoor learning to their curriculum.

Integrated Approaches

Perhaps the most encouraging efforts, however, are represented in projects that fall somewhere in between all of the above. Projects like Ed Harwood’s ‘aeroponic’ mini-farm, which sits in the school cafeteria at Philip’s Academy, and was recently profiled in the New Yorker. Produced in 2010, the farm grows six to seven crops a year, without soil, sunlight or large amounts of water. Perfect for an urban environment, the farm is used to teach chemistry, maths and biology to kids up to eighth grade, some of whom have never even seen vegetables growing. In this instance, plants are introduced to the school environment but children are also encouraged to get outside and grow things themselves.

Whether it’s new schools, fresh plants, or outdoor activity, all these efforts show that there’s a new way to incorporate green in education systems. So, in the spirit of supporting this critically important movement, we’d like to hear from you. Do you have an inspiring story of getting kids out into nature? Because where better than the classroom to sow the seeds of a greener future?