For many of us growing up, sustainability wasn’t much of a topic at school (other than maybe planting a tree or two for Earth Day), but that’s changing rapidly. Nowadays, environmental awareness and incorporating social justice and diversity are crucial topics that children need to engage with in order to fully understand what is happening in the world around them – and maybe even to help turn things around. Creating a sustainable learning environment is also critical for children’s health, well-being, and their ability to learn. We recently spoke to Aimee Arandia Østensen, 2nd Grade Head Teacher and Co-Leader of the Go Green Committee at the Manhattan Country School, about how to implement an eco-conscious curriculum at your child’s school from an early age starting with just a couple of small steps. Read on for our full interview with Aimee to see her thoughts about what makes a school “green,” the benefits of learning on a farm and how more traditional schools can be more like Manhattan Country School.
Inhabitat: What do you think makes a school “green”?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: Becoming a sustainable school is a process, not an endpoint. All institutions can become more sustainable by thinking about how ecology, economy and equity interplay with one another as people make decisions about the long-term and short-term life of their institution. Schools that responsibly consider the whole picture of how their consumption, education, waste and facilities systems relate to and impact their immediate community and the larger society, could well be taking a sustainable approach to learning and living. If you walk into a school and see evidence of sustainable thinking such as visible composting and recycling bins, plants growing in classrooms, and posters that reflect connections to the community, it is an indicator of “green” intentions. But to know if a school is truly educating for sustainability, one needs to look at the curricula to see if the designers and teachers have a sustainable mindset.
Inhabitat: What sustainable practices does the Manhattan Country School offer, and how is this different from other schools?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: At Manhattan Country School (MCS), we try to put the students’ educational experience at the forefront and core of our decision-making process. In that way improvements in the facilities, resource systems, and waste management are directly connected to education and are frequently the direct result of the learning process. I’ve seen many schools that claim to be sustainable. Some of them boast an impressive LEED-certified building, innovative energy systems, or awe-inspiring gardens. Unfortunately, some such schools do not always have significant curricula that relates to their sustainable facilities. I feel that this is a lost opportunity for their students. One additional factor that sets Manhattan Country School apart from other “green” schools is our commitment to social justice and diversity. As a result, all educating for sustainability experiences at MCS incorporate consideration of the social implications of an idea, occurance, process or action.
MCS also has a school farm that is an integral part of each student’s school experience year after year. At the farm, the students take full ownership of the land, the responsibilities and the joy. This is hands-on learning in full force! Over time, students follow the full cycle of work and nature through four main classes: nature, farming, cooking and textiles.
Inhabitat: How much time is spent on the MCS Farm? How does this work?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: Over the course of their 10 years spent at MCS, our urban students will have spent 17 weeks at the farm in the Catskills. Their first trip, which is three days, is when they are about 8 years old. During the following years, they have multiple 4 or 5-day trips throughout the school year. As a result, they experience the farm during all seasons and engage in the work that changes with the seasons. They may harvest dye plants in the fall to color wool and then clean out the sheep pen in the springtime. They may prepare the garden beds in April and later on, cook with the vegetables from that garden. As the students grow older, they investigate the political, economic and social dynamics that inform and result from running their own farm and taking stewardship for a place.
Inhabitat: MCS students are primarily urban dwellers living in Manhattan. How does working and learning on a farm help their development and help prepare them for adult life in a big city?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: We are all dependent upon the natural resources of the Earth. Although we urban dwellers can easily lose sight of where our food, water, clothing, and energy come from, we know that we cannot do without these things. No matter where one resides, it is important that we understand the connection that we have to our natural resources and to advocate for the protection of those resources so that society can continue to sustain itself and to thrive for many, many generations to come. Additionally, the MCS farm program teaches cooperation and responsibility through experience. No matter what one’s profession, the ability to work with others to solve critical problems is essential.
Inhabitat: MCS is a private school and can afford to do things differently – what would you recommend for traditional public schools who want to go “greener”? What can they do even if the children are not able to go to a farm regularly? What small steps can they take?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: One of the most significant and impactful things a school and parents can do is to create and support positive experiences with nature for their child. It may be as simple as taking children out to natural spaces like fields, a grove of trees, or a stream for free, open-ended play and exploration. All children need to have this exposure in order to nourish a positive attitude toward nature. Digging in the dirt and climbing a tree seem to be natural impulses for many children. As teachers and parents, we are the adults responsible for developing the next generation of environmental advocates. The first step is showing children that nature is not scary and that it can be a source of joy.
In the classroom, teachers and students can do many small things. Here are a few ideas:
- Grow and care for plants in a windowsill or under a grow lamp.
- Acquire a small plot of Earth outside—maybe a garden bed in a nearby community garden or a treepit near the school, for free digging and to do some gardening.
- Take students on monthly or seasonal nature walks with the intent of noticing the changes that each time of year brings.
- Care for a class pet.
- Start a vermicompost bin. Worms can be the class pets!
- Uncover the journey of our food from seed to plate and back to the soil.
- Follow the flow of waste from the classroom to the garbage trucks and into the landfill or the recycling factory. Then, engage your students as champions of responsible recycling in your school.
- On beautiful days, make a big deal of the gift of good weather and have a picnic outside.
Lastly, the MCS farm has a public mission. Our farm program is shared with public schools as a rental, for the benefit their students. During their week in the Catskills, the visiting students will take on the responsibilities and reap the pleasures of a working farm, just as the MCS students do. There are also a number of other institutions that offer city kids hands-on exposure to nature on a grander scale than what is easily done in the urban classroom.
Inhabitat: Can you tell us a little about the Children’s Environmental Literacy Foundation (CELF), and how it works?
Aimee Arandia Østensen: CELF is an organization that trains teachers and administrators to educate for sustainability. They promote using the lens of sustainability to transform all aspects of school life, from the classroom to the school grounds and out into the community. CELF partners with schools for on-going staff development, runs teacher training institutes, and brings programming into schools with the mission of making sustainability an integral part of every child’s education. Attending the CELF Summer Institute served as a springboard for me to re-envision the social studies curriculum I was already teaching. For me, it was all about seeing the dynamics of the human to nature relationship and how that informs the development of society and culture. CELF is currently bringing their mission to the NYC public schools through a partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative. This partnership makes the “greening” of a school through the curriculum something that all city schools can afford.
Big thanks to Ms. Østensen for sharing her sustainable education tips. You can learn more about the Manhattan Country School and its farm (available for rent!) on their website or feel free to call them at 212.348.0952. Aimee will also be one of the panelists at our “How to Green Your School” discussion at the Green Festival NYC on April 26th at 11:30am, so if you have questions about green education, don’t miss your opportunity to speak to her there.