In writing for the Green Cincinnati Education Advocacy blog, I often wonder what topics readers of this blog will find most interesting. To educate the public of Cincinnati about green building and green living is kind of a tall order and can encompass many valuable topics. As someone with a background in design and architecture, I sometimes find myself leaning in the direction of construction-related topics that might not resonate strongly with the general public, so for this piece, I thought I would concentrate on my other background: education. Since Green Cincinnati Education Advocacy focuses primarily on education anyway, I decided to take a look at one area of green education that’s becoming more popular internationally, as well as right here in Cincinnati.
You might have noticed that over the past decade or so, many K-12 schools in the Cincinnati area have been emphasizing sustainable or green principles in their construction or renovations. According to their website, about two dozen schools in the Cincinnati Public School system have achieved LEED Silver or higher, and all of the universities within the 513 area code are ranked highly by Princeton Review’s Guide to Green Colleges (2014). Schools such as Northern Kentucky’s Twenhofel Middle School, built in 2005-2006 and CPS’s Pleasant Ridge Montessori School built in 2009 were pioneer green schools in the Cincinnati area. Certainly all of these green schools are beneficial not only because they are green in and of themselves, but also in that they serve to educate those who work and learn inside of them every day. The schools themselves are learning tools. However, what about early childhood education? In what ways can we reach the youngest of minds in green education and advocacy?
In September of 2010, I traveled as a faculty sponsor on a study-abroad trip called Sustainability in Scandinavia. I took 20 design and architecture students to Denmark and Sweden for ten days to study the region’s culture, industry, and policies as they related to sustainability. One of the “field trips” we took was to a children’s school in Copenhagen, where we learned about the adaptive reuse of the building - the school was located in a formerly abandoned factory warehouse building and used a myriad of green building techniques to reduce energy consumption and keep the interior healthy for the children. We also learned that Scandinavian children spend significantly more time outdoors during instructional time than American children, in all types of weather. They are encouraged to explore their outdoor environment as part of their learning, using nature itself as a tool to grow academically. Ironically, I have a cousin who lives in Karlstad, Sweden who works in a preschool there. She shares her insight with me often, reinforcing the ideas of outdoor learning labs, and sending me video of her little students exploring outside even during Sweden’s long and dark winter.
A few months ago, Emily Freeman penned an article called “The Outdoor Preschool Movement” for the Sierra Club online blog. When I read the article, I thought of two things right away: my trip to Scandinavia and my neighbor, the Cincinnati Nature Center. Freeman discusses nature-based learning of traditional concepts – such as counting chicken’s eggs for math lessons and learning colors by identifying different types of leaves in autumn – but also how outdoor preschool teaches children soft-skills such as preparedness, adaptability, result and consequence, and so forth. The children participate in outdoor learning regardless of weather, so they learn to dress appropriately and they learn what the ramifications are of a full day spent in the rain or snow versus the sunshine. They learn how to seek shelter or shade when needed, and how to take turns when climbing on downed logs instead of colorful playground equipment. They also learn about insects, plants, and animals; and caretakers feel they are “laying the groundwork for environmental citizenship.” Here in Cincinnati, we have many preschools, but none as in-tuned with the outdoor preschool movement (that I know of), as the Cincinnati Nature Center’s Nature Preschool. The school’s philosophy is “the main purpose of outdoor education is to provide meaningful contextual experiences that complement and expand classroom instruction.” They also note National Wildlife Federation research in a 2010 survey of educators which shows that 75% of educators surveyed: “believed students who spend regular time outdoors tend to be more creative and better able to problem-solve in the classroom. (NWF 2010)” The CNC Nature Preschool offers hundreds of acres of forest, creeks, and meadows for children to explore, in addition to seasonal activities such as maple syrup harvesting, birdwatching, tracking Monarch Butterflies and more. Instead of a playground, they offer a natural play-scape with logs, sticks, rocks, and other things from nature to build with and climb on – of course under the supervision of staff. The CNC also offers summer camps for older children and programs for scouts and homeschool children as well. You can read more about CNC’s Nature Preschool in this Cincinnati Magazine article, Childcare and Education by Mike Boyer.
Homeschool parents have long touted the benefits of outdoor education as well, using field experiments and outdoor exploration as a means to achieve (or exceed) state academic standards for their children. While her children were not homeschooled, a friend and neighbor of mine is a stay at home mom who did not send any of her four children to a traditional preschool. Instead, she created her own preschool curriculum and focused on outdoor learning as much as possible. She purchased a family membership to the Cincinnati Nature Center, so she had access to many of the programs and trails there on a daily basis for her children. In addition, she utilized Hamilton, Clermont, Butler, and Warren Counties’ park systems to supplement and offer variety in outdoor locations for her children. Her teaching style focused on outdoor play and real-world scenarios such as grocery shopping, hiking, and apple and berry-picking to teach her young children. She also spent a lot of time at the Cincinnati Zoo, Newport Aquarium, and the many libraries, museums and playhouses in Cincinnati to expose her children to theater, art, and music. Many weekday morning programs at these locations are free or low cost. Her four children are now in grades 5 through 9 and attend traditional public school. All of them have been tested as gifted and are straight A students, which she attributes to having spent their preschool years outdoors in the world exploring the environment and learning about citizenship, philanthropy, conservation, stewardship, and Leave No Trace principles.
The Cincinnati region has a number of places that align with these philosophies, and it’s clear that they are intertwined with green building, energy conservation, and many other green concepts. So, while Green Cincinnati Education Advocacy focuses mostly on green education for grown-up homeowners and business-people, it’s still important to remember that sustainability and environmental stewardship are concepts that even the youngest of children can learn and appreciate!
(This week's post comes from Krista Nutter, LEED AP, MS Arch. A college design educator and administrator at a CIDA-accredited program, a sustainable building consultant, and designer/owner of an award-winning, Energy-Star 5+, passive solar, solar electric, high-performance green home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her home was on the USGBC Cincinnati Green Home tour in 2015. Learn more about it at the house blog.)
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