These Green Schools Are Building A Sustainable Future By Bringing Students Closer To Nature
A veil of morning mist hangs lightly over towering palm trees in Abiansemal, about a half-hour drive southwest of Ubud in Bali. A gong sounds—but it doesn’t come from a temple or a wellness retreat. It’s a school bell. Mums in yoga gear and tanned dads with man buns kiss their kids goodbye and watch as they disappear into elaborate bamboo structures that resemble something out of James Cameron’s Avatar. This is Green School, where living and functioning sustainably isn’t only encouraged, it is the norm, experienced day in and day out by its students. The entire 8-hectare campus is solar and water powered, boasting a food-generating aquaponics facility and even an on-site bird conservation centre which has, over the years, significantly boosted the population of the endangered Bali starling.
Anyone paying attention to world affairs will recognise that the students of today will be grappling with issues of energy, climate and food security for their entire lives—regardless of their field of study or their profession. And recognising their children’s fate, a growing number of parents have abandoned traditional education models in favour of alternative, sustainability-focused schools.
It isn’t just the parents who are concerned—in November 2019, hundreds of thousands of students took to their respective cities’ streets, from Manila to Sydney to Madrid, demanding the world’s leaders take action on climate change. In fact, a 2018 survey of 11,000 students and parents by The Princeton Review found that 63 per cent said their decision to apply to or attend a college would be influenced by the school’s commitment to the environment.
Living With The Land
Where education was once about preparing for an individual’s future, schools like Green School are priming young minds for the future at large, placing a mindset of collective consciousness at the heart of their curriculums. Alongside essential subjects like maths and English, they emphasise problem-solving and “doing”—be it scuba diving with CoralWatch, attending UN climate conferences, or growing and harvesting food. Many of them include a “return to the land” programme that puts students to work as part of their studies.
In the US, the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut acquired the 116-hectare Fairfield Farm over a decade ago to give students hands-on experience with sustainable agriculture, producing 30 per cent of the food used in its dining hall. Closer to home in Hong Kong, Malvern College introduced a forest-beach programme to give students the opportunity to learn from, and in, nature.
At the International School of Kuala Lumpur, the first in Malaysia to achieve a platinum Green Building Index ranking for sustainable design and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Eco-Schools Green Flag award, a rooftop urban farm introduces the concept of permaculture to its students. At Green School, the distinctive Millennium Bridge on campus, built entirely of bamboo across the Ayung River, was constructed by middle school students.
“I believe that it’s important to review and challenge the traditional model of education as our world rapidly evolves beyond what we grew up with,” says Sena Husband who, along with her husband, Paul, lives between Bali and Hong Kong so that their twin children can attend Green School. “Different skills are needed, and the ability to learn with a sense of relevance in this world at a young age is critical. It fosters self-motivation and is empowering to know that they are the future.”
In the realm of higher education, about 65kms from Bishop, California, Deep Springs College is situated on an isolated cattle ranch where students are “expected to dedicate themselves to lives of service to humanity”. Classes at the private liberal arts college are small—the average is eight students. Outside the classroom, they are required to spend 20 hours per week working on the ranch and farm, a requirement that aims to prepare them to become positive and active citizens of the world.
“Parents are really thoughtful with the way that we raise kids today because we have access to a lot of information and want to make sure we’re giving our kids every opportunity,” says Lindsay Powers, the founding editor of Yahoo Parenting who recently published the book You Can’t F*ck Up Your Kids. “Millennial parents like myself are also aware of our impact on the environment, and want to minimise it—whether that’s by cutting single-use plastic or a larger lifestyle choice, such as an alternative school.”
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Parents who are leading this trend share the same concern—that conventional, rigidly academic models of education aren’t enough to prepare their children for the increasingly complex problems faced by society. Helen E Lees, a specialist in alternative education who received her doctorate from the University of Birmingham in 2011, and author of Education Without Schools, has said there is “something quite worrying about the state of the education system. I’m not sure having 30 children in a classroom all doing the same thing works any more.”
On the other hand, some education experts question whether experiential classrooms truly prepare students for the rigours they will face in college, but many institutions intend to test the boundaries of formal learning habits.
Taking experiential, out-of-the-classroom learning even further is Think Global School, an independent high school that travels the world. Its students study in 12 countries over the course of three years, during which time, rather than reading about different countries and cultures in textbooks, they experience them first hand. They have collected water data samples to report on India’s freshwater concerns, and used trigonometry to calculate the height of the Duomo in Florence, Italy.
“It is one thing to learn about nature in the classroom, but to do so in the midst of mud, puddles and undergrowth, it all becomes more real,” says Robin Lister, headmaster of Malvern College in Hong Kong, which recently introduced a nature-driven programme. “The Forest School programme has a philosophy of child-led learning. Close supervision by trained Forest School Educators and school staff is balanced with the need for children to make their own decisions and explore. As pupils learn such skills in a natural setting they gain in self-confidence, build a whole new set of skills and are given the opportunity to learn important life skills like cooperation and collaboration”.
In a city like Hong Kong, known for placing intense pressure on exams and academic excellence, the introduction of nature-focused, student-led learning has been greeted as a radical—albeit necessary—movement.
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Making a Difference
The intention is to foster future generations of green leaders. Six years ago, 2018 Green School graduate Melati Wijsen and her sister, Isabel, founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a youth-led organisation that educates and empowers people to say no to single-use plastic. “We didn’t want to wait until we were older to start making a difference,” says Wijsen, who in January 2020 spoke at the World Economic Forum.
The sisters more recently established Youthtopia, which offers short peer-to-peer programmes guided by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to inspire young people to take action. Other students have gone on to develop Bio Buses fuelled by used cooking oil—now used by Green School—eco-friendly clothing materials and other innovative solutions.
“We believe that if you love something, you will choose to protect it”, says Husband, who adds: “We chose to expose our kids at this early age to the beauty and wonderful aspects of our natural world, so that they can feel connected to it. This is the education we signed up for. If they can connect authentically to their natural world, we believe that they will want to play an active role in protecting it as they grow older”.
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