It’s likely that the vast majority of us had a similar elementary school experience: rote memorization, gross cafeteria “mystery food”, long days spent sitting at our desks, filling out worksheets, anxiously awaiting the few precious minutes outside that were allotted to us at recess and lunch breaks. Fortunately, times have changed, and both parents and educators alike are aware of how important it is for children to spend time out in nature, and to receive a more holistic education. We had the opportunity to interview Waldorf Kindergarten Teacher Elea Robinson, founding faculty of the New Amsterdam Waldorf School to find out how environmental awareness and a nature-based education can help to nurture our children’s minds and bodies, and create a greener future for everyone.
INHABITAT: What do you think makes a school “green”? What constitutes environmental friendliness in a school?
Elea Robinson: For me, a “green” school is one that supports the development of eco-consciousness in a holistic and developmentally appropriate way, both in the classroom and beyond. Eco-consciousness needs to extend across the entire community, and children who grow up surrounded by adults who take a genuine interest in the earth will also take an interest. We are all responsible, but the truth is many of us are out of touch with the natural world around us, and our culture supports that disconnect. Spending time outdoors on a regular basis has to be a discipline; a practice, like meditation.
When you actively practice being outdoors—clearing your thoughts, quieting your emotions, and taking in what you receive through the senses—you begin to develop a much greater sensitivity to what is happening around you. Even in an urban environment, nature is always active: flowers bloom, birds build nests, bees collect nectar, trees produce seed pods, ice freezes and melts, leaves change color. The variety of subtle changes that take place in nature on a daily basis is astounding. Every day is different and beautiful in its unique way, but you have to keep being there, and being receptive, to tap into the earth’s rhythms. If you allow nature to be your teacher and friend, it will reveal an incredible amount of wisdom.
INHABITAT: What do you do in your classroom and in your school to incorporate environmental awareness and make your classroom a healthy space for the children?
Elea Robinson: As teachers, we work to make really careful and conscious choices, and we keep things really simple so we can focus on the quality of the educational experience. Our snacks are wholesome and organic, but our menus are pared-down and very consistent so we can keep costs low and prep time minimal. Same thing with the toys the children play with. We choose what is in the environment based on its usability, durability and flexibility, and we leave everything else out. For example, the children in our early childhood classrooms play with baskets of smoothly sanded, irregularly cut pieces of natural wood, river stones, plant-dyed squares of colored cotton and silk cloth, and long cords made of wool yarn that any beginning knitter can make… and with this simple collection of objects, the children are so happy and fully entertained!
Even the artistic activities are simple: with a good piece of paper and three crayons in primary colors, the children spend 10-20 minutes at a time drawing quietly. Another advantage to simplicity is that it allows us to really include the children. When we prepare a snack, the children help chop the vegetables and knead the bread dough. When we paint, the children pour the paint into the jars and soak the watercolor paper. They take turns washing the dishes after snack time in warm, soapy water. And the older Kindergarteners help one another to carry the compost bucket all the way from school to the community garden where they play each day. We work hard to be organized enough that the children can be included as part of the process from beginning to end.
INHABITAT: If you had to give advice to someone launching a program to improve environmental awareness and health in public schools, what ideas or strategies would you recommend?
Elea Robinson: I think the key is showing that making choices that are good for the environment can also be choices that improve efficiency and economy. A good plan should integrate environmental concerns with the very real concerns of serving large numbers of families at a low cost. The truth is that positive change requires involvement on the community level; no single solution is going to work well for all school districts, so striking the right balance between over-arching consistency and community empowerment is essential.
It is important that those who are in positions of leadership within a particular school be enabled and educated to make decisions that are good for that community and for the environment at the same time. Developing good strategies and then handing over the implementation of those strategies to community leaders through proper training is the best way to ensure that we can see change on a large scale.
INHABITAT: What advice would you give to parents who would like to be more environmentally-minded in their families but don’t really know where to start?
Elea Robinson: Simplify your life, remove the clutter—you don’t need it! Stop shopping, separate yourself from the virtual world and spend more time reconnecting with the world right around you. Take a positive interest in other people and treat them kindly. Maintain healthy, balanced rhythms and bring ritual back into your daily life: light a candle at meal times, protect a little time each day to be together as a family without other distractions, go to bed and wake up at the same time. Stay active and connected to nature, don’t allow stress to rule your daily mode of operation.
Treat your home, your family, and yourself with care and don’t move so quickly that you stop enjoying life. If you pay attention, you will notice that your children naturally know how to live in a healthy, joyful way when provided with clear, consistent structures based on these essentials. So, work to provide those structures and your children will remind you how to enjoy life. Environmental-mindedness is directly connected to loving and living life in a healthy way.
INHABITAT: What environmental issue are you most concerned about and why? What is the best way, do you think, to address it?
Elea Robinson: My biggest concern is that the majority of adults now spend their time primarily in virtual environments rather than natural ones. The benefits of technology are many, but we haven’t yet learned how to balance our use of technology with our ongoing physical needs, and we are losing touch with our place in the natural world as a result. We are feeding our minds but neglecting our bodies and souls—our whole culture has come to reflect this. We are irritable, distracted, depressed and lethargic, and that doesn’t serve society or the natural environment well.
I think we need to make a more conscious commitment in the workplace, in schools, and at home to limit the use of technology and support people in caring for their physical and emotional wellbeing. If people don’t have access to affordable local resources and enough time to prepare healthy meals, spend time with family, and participate in the stewardship of their natural surroundings, whether it be a private back yard, a public park, or a community garden, then we are failing as a society. Sustainability needs to be placed alongside productivity as a cultural value: If we set clearer standards to protect and encourage healthy lifestyles for everyone, then our society as a whole can become unified in new ways of thinking, and we can achieve the kind of environmental consciousness that fosters positive change.