‘Going local’ with St. Paul’s

One of my first sessions as an ecoActive volunteer was with Year 4 students at canalside school in Hackney. The goal was this: to better understand the local area, assess what it currently looks like and think about what improvements would make it better. What the students might not have realised was that they were really learning about the basics of urban sustainability and some of the core ideas of “smart cities”. In one of the early sessions with the class we had them look at maps of the local area to identify areas they recognised and points of interest, as well as chart out their route to school. Many of them had never thought about their local area as such or imagined the space they inhabit in relation to the vastness of London.

They weren’t just learning the four cardinal directions or how to use the legend on a map – they were thinking about how their local area was organised and discovering new things about their own backyard. We had them think about what aspects constitute a healthy and sustainable local area – bicycle lanes, nearby bus stops, clean streets, recycling bins, street art, places to shop and eat, friendly people, parks and green spaces, churches and other places to meet friends and family. We also asked the pupils to talk about what can make the local community undesirable or even unsafe for themselves as well as the environment. They mentioned litter, speeding cars, dog poop, pollution, vandalism and other nasty sights.

In the second session, we took our workshop outside and explored the local area with the children. It was neat to have looked at the maps and had the discussions beforehand because it allowed the pupils to look at everyday things with a new perspective. Some were outraged by the amount of litter on the ground, others were delighted to see trees and the canal – having discussed the important role they play in providing a home for animals. In small groups, they took photos of things they liked and things they didn’t like. In the final session we had the students / junior photographers create collages with the pictures they had taken. Each group – and each student – had their own unique idea of what a healthy local area looks like, across all of the collages you could see that diversity, sustainability and accessibility were common themes. It was obvious that some were becoming more aware of the part they play in defining and contributing to the local area. Inspired by all of this, we had them write letters to their local council on what changes they would like to see.


Composting in any language

One of the most memorable sessions I joined as a volunteer was at a nursery and after-school centre in Stamford Hill. One thing that I was not completely prepared for – and what made it so memorable – was that the large majority of the 40+ children only spoke Yiddish. While this presented some wrinkles to our planned activities on the theme of composting, the session worker and I were up to the task and saw it as a positive challenge for developing our ability to communicate about sustainability.

Fortunately we brought along a few tactile activities that worked well regardless of the language barrier. For one, worms in dirt always fascinate kids. It would have been great to explain the composting cycle and the vital role that worms play in converting our food scraps into soil for new food to grow, but we did have pictures to help communicate the message. And when we had the kids draw, cut and paste images into their own 2D compost bin, it was clear that many had understood what can be composted and what cannot.

The best part of the day for me was our compost inspired scavenger hunt. Luckily the playground provided just the terrain need to hide our assortment of images of compost-friendly items (apple cores, loo rolls cardboard, carrot peelings). It started off with just a few kids doing detective work to find the images that I had hidden in the slides and underneath seasaws, but with all of the fun they were having, soon a mob of about 10 children were scrambling to gather them all. Not all of them might have fully understood the ecological purpose of what we were doing, but in any case, sustainability is meant to be fun, and we certainly accomplished that!


Down and dirty with paper recycling

One activity that I’ve done a number of times with ecoActive is a classic – taking scraps of paper and transforming it into new sheets of recycled paper. I think what is so powerful and effective about this activity is that it pulls sustainability away from the abstract and literally into the hands of the workshops participants. The first time I volunteered with this session, I was doing more learning myself than teaching, as I had never really understood the process myself. We educate about pollution, water conservation, climate change and other big important environmental concepts to kids, but they really do need hands-on activities to grasp exactly what we’re talking about. And this workshop is one of the best to accomplish this goal – as each participant has a chance to mix, shape and dry their own piece of colourful recycled paper.

I’ve supported this workshop with Year 3 and 4 students as well as with a group of adults with developmental disabilities at Hackney College. On all occasions it has really captured their attention. Usually they all know that “recycling” is a good thing and something they should do, but this activity actually shows them what the process looks like (at least on a small scale). It is so important that kids have an understanding of what happens to their rubbish and their recyclables after they’re thrown in the bin or sent off to landfill so that they grow up to make informed and responsible decisions. Besides taking them to a recycling factory or showing them the landscapes that are preserved by reusing valuable resources, this is a simple alternative to encouraging them to care about the 3Rs.

One particular aspect of this workshop that I always like is showing the groups photos of forested and deforested areas. The pupils often instinctively know that the lush, green, vegetative and diverse landscape is the healthier one compared to the area that has been clear-cut for strip-mining. While they might not yet know the complex climatic and hydrological processes that virgin rainforests enable, they can always grasp the very simple concept that people and animals needs oxygen to breath and need trees to create oxygen. I am sometimes amazed at how much children know about the environment even before we begin our lesson. On one occasion a pupil gave such an accurate definition of deforestation that I was at a loss for words on how I could describe it any better.

And other times, I am inspired by the passion these young people feel towards the environment. These sessions always remind me of the strong sense of right and wrong that children have. For them, the sustainability issues that our political leaders often struggle to address, or that get bogged down or sidelined by other interests, are no-brainers. I always leave this session feeling better about our chances for the future if children have the opportunity to explore and deepen their understanding of the natural environment and the importance of protecting it.


Up to the challenge at a Tottenham school

I was lucky enough to join a few sessions in the series of workshops that ecoActive put on at St. Ann’s Primary School in Tottenham in the autumn of 2014. One of the reasons I became involved as a volunteer with ecoActive was to test out the waters of environmental education and see if it might be a possible career fit for me. The two sessions at this Tottenham school were a good flavour of the intensity and the rewards of primary school teaching.

The students were, on the one hand, so enthusiastic and excited about the projects that we had them working on that it was definitely a challenge to maintain their focus throughout the session and give them all the support they wanted. On the other hand, their interest level was so strong that I don’t think I’ve ever had such a captive audience at ecoActive – as they hung onto each new piece of information about the environment that we gave them. This was particularly true in a session we did on upcycling where the goal was to transform an old t-shirt into a fashionable reusable bag. This involved a small amount of sewing (which was a new skill for me) as well as some frantic cutting and pasting to decorate the bags.

We got there in the end and each student had a wonderful upcycled bag of his or her own creation to take home, but it certainly was a high-intensity session. The most rewarding element was seeing the amount of pride that the students had in creating something “new” and participating in the cool act of upcycling. I could envision many more funky art projects on the horizon the next time those students are cleaning out their closets.

The final session I joined with this class provided me my first opportunity to lead an activity. It was great to have the confidence of the session workers to allow me to do this! The focus was on understanding where our resources come from – in particular the components (plastics, metals, chemicals, glass, oil) that make up our electronic devices. And at my station we had a large map of the world and I attempted to talk to the kids about supply chains and the journey that raw materials take around the world from when they are extracted from the ground to when they are shipped and assembled in factories to when we dispose of them. Although most of the children were wild about ipads and playstations, many had never thought about what they were made of, much less where these resources came from or what happened to them when we throw them away.

We learned about the differences between renewable and non-renewable resources and discussed the risks of transporting things like oil and gas (most students could explain what an “oil spill” was). One of the most rewarding aspects for me was being able to share with the students a story they didn’t know – that of the Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex of debris that occupies a huge space in the Pacific Ocean. Seeing young people start to make the connection between the things they buy, eat or dispose of and the impact this has on the planet is one of the main reasons I became involved with ecoActive and this session was a testament to this.


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