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CULTIVATING OUR YOUNGEST EARTH KEEPERS by Malia Rulon Herman

Updated: Mar 15

Teaching grade-school students (and their parents) sustainable practices


During an Eco Star Assembly on “Zero Waste,” students were asked to decide which of the two actors on stage was not making waste doing everyday activities. Photo credit: South Mountain Elementary PTA

Living a sustainable life is not just for grown-ups.


Just ask the students at South Mountain Elementary School, where a new program called Eco Star has begun teaching students concepts such as zero waste and energy conservation.


“I used to use plastic juice boxes,” wrote a second-grader, Pacey. “When I saw the Eco Star assembly, I felt bad for the planet. I started to use my reusable water bottle.”


The Eco Star program, now in its second year, began with a few parents and a take-home journal that detailed ways to make a positive environmental impact. After attracting the support of several teachers and the administration, it transformed into a series of school assemblies designed to present complex environmental topics to children through student-acted skits and engaging flyers.


The goal is to inspire awareness, classroom discussions, conversations with family members and neighbors – and change.


Tuscan School's Beyond the Bell environmental enrichment class posing with former Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, who spoke about the new town ordinance banning plastic bags.

At present, says Eco Star co-founder and parent volunteer Georgia Madiba, “The focus around being green seems to be teaching the kids to pick up trash and recycle. We wanted to move beyond that. We want to teach the kids what we can do so that we don’t have so much trash to begin with.”


Future topics could include storm drains and where the water from melting snow goes, or the environmental impact of eating a banana from Ecuador. Madiba, who has a second grader at South Mountain, said she hasn’t seen these kinds of environmental topics taught to young children in an institutionalized way – and she’d like to change that.


She’s not alone. Environmentally-minded parents across the district have been meeting to share ideas, strategies and plans for how to introduce these concepts into their children’s education. The idea is to work together to promote positive environmental practices – and teaching – in district schools.


“I thought there must have been other parents out there that felt like I did, wanting to see sustainability and more focus on current environmental issues at their children’s schools,” said Devi Damask, who is the coordinator for the parent-run group, SOMA Schools Green Team. “So I did some research and put a call out to bring more parents in to share knowledge, ideas and green efforts in a collaborative way.”


Seth Boyden has long been seen as a role model for its on-site gardening and composting programs, which many district schools have worked to replicate. Now the Eco Star program at South Mountain could become a template for other schools to follow.


At Tuscan Elementary School, parent Julia Sommer has created another program that could be replicated. She has been teaching after-school enrichment classes through the Beyond the Bell program that provide opportunities for students to learn about their role in combating climate change. Sommer’s classes have tackled topics like why single-use plastic bags are harmful for the environment and how to reduce your carbon footprint. 


“If you wait until middle school to teach how and why sustainable behaviors are vital then it’s likely students will already have developed wasteful habits that are harder to change,” says Sommer, who has a fifth-grade son and twins in kindergarten.

South Mountain Elementary’s Green Team Parent Co-Chairs, Jennie Aylward (L) and Georgia Madiba (R)), help student Adler Williamson dress to be the “Energy Vampire” during an Eco Star assembly on energy conservation while student Eve Schensul hands lightning bolts to represent electricity. Photo credit: Megan Yates Photography

Damask said a big focus for the SOMA Schools Green Team this year has been working with the district on a heat-mapping study and recycling; on sustainability and energy-efficient strategies; and on recruiting parents and teachers to form Green Teams at each school. (She urges anyone who is interested to join the SOMA Schools Green Team Facebook page and come to meetings.)

Another goal, backed by district superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor, is for each school to become certified with the nonprofit group Sustainable Jersey for Schools. There are 241 schools in the state currently certified, according to the group’s website. Locally, only South Mountain is certified, although other schools in the district have had this designation in the past.


Being certified opens the door for grant funding for projects, says Damask, who has a fourth-grade son at Jefferson as well as an eighth-grader at South Orange Middle School, adding that it’s clear that SOMA students are interested in these topics. Living in Maplewood and South Orange, many are aware of the towns’ newly passed bans on plastic bags and they are eager not only to do their part, but to do more.


A group of fifth graders at South Mountain, who called themselves the Green Tweens, advocated last year for their school cafeteria to ban the “spork,” a single-use plastic utensil.


Meanwhile, Emmy Goldman, a first grader at Marshall Elementary School, has written a letter to her principal, backed by a petition signed by fellow students, asking for the cafeteria to get rid of single-use plastic straws.


“They see the problems that are arising in the world from the rising use of plastic and they want to be part of the change,” Damask says.


South Mountain School students illustrated a way that they can help protect the Earth.

Serena Watkinson, a kindergarten teacher at South Mountain and the first teacher to join the Eco Star team, says elementary school is the perfect time to introduce environmental topics like this.

“They are like little sponges,” Watkinson says. “When you give them a concept that they can see and figure out and do on their own – like they know they can flip a paper over and reuse it and they know they can bring a reusable container back and forth – it’s amazing.”


Other ways the Eco Star program has encouraged kids to make a difference include drinking from a cup instead of using a single-use straw, bringing an apple or carrots to school for snack instead of chips or something else that comes in a wrapper, or simply remembering to put the caps back on pens so that they will last longer.


To conserve energy, Eco Star students have been challenged to spend time playing games or doing activities that don’t need electrical plugs or batteries, choosing to walk or bike instead of asking to be driven places in a car, and turning lights off when they leave a room.


“When you start talking to them at this age, it just becomes their life culture; it becomes their norm,” Watkinson says.


Malia Rulon Herman is an environmentally-conscious parent who is in full support of any program in the schools that teaches children how to be responsible stewards of our earth.


Sustainability isn’t just for school. It’s for summer too!


The South Orange Country Day School Summer Camp will feature a theme of “Our Environment” in which students will focus on a specific aspect of the environment each week and learn about the human impact. Weekly topics include the sun, sky, wind, plant life and oceans.


Meanwhile, children attending classes at the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School Children’s Summer Program will have several environmentally friendly classes to choose from, including “Fun-Cycle: Recycled Crafts,” in which they will learn about waste and use reclaimed items to make jewelry, masks and mosaics.


In another class, called “Upcycled: Wearable Art,” students will learn about sustainable design and how to upcycle by creating new wearable art with materials such as reclaimed corks, upholstery samples, denim remnants and fabric from old T-shirts.