Hi, my name is Jessica and I’m going to be 5 soon. This Christmas I told my parents to wrap all the presents in newspaper. That way, we could help look after the planet and not cover it in plastic by buying unrecyclable wrapping paper. It won’t change the world, but it’s important to do something…

2018 saw a definite shift in our consciousness around sustainability issues. Instead of the wilful ignorance in which many of us had existed regarding the plastic problem and climate change, people from all walks of life started to sit up and think about the impact of their lifestyles on the planet, and what they might do to implement change.
Easier said than done. But then we came across an interesting article about how Macdonald’s originally had started off with a large menu for its customers but had ultimately found that the less they offered, the better their sales. You might ask: What has Macdonald’s got to do with implementing sustainable change, particularly in the classroom? We would argue, a lot.

Our children, like ourselves, are faced (particularly in the developed world) by a barrage of choices and items that they are ‘told’ by advertisers that they need. Likewise, we as educators, are made to feel that we need to buy in more to create quality experiences and improve the learning of our youngest pupils.
But what if we were to follow Macdonald’s ethos and aim for subtraction rather than addition? We would be taking small but important steps to make our classrooms more sustainable. Just like eliminating wrapping paper, or straws or plastic cups, we might take away some of the stuff that isn’t doing our planet any good and we would resolve the constant dilemma of how to fund resourcing a classroom.

How would it benefit the learners? In lots of ways. Firstly, having less stuff in the classroom would create a calmer, communication-friendly space. The children learn quickly how to tidy limited resources and where to put them when they’re finished playing and learning with them. Secondly, the quality of play improves as the children take responsibility for the resources and can easily combine elements of the classroom without the teacher developing an ulcer every time the resources are ‘mixed-up’ and transported.

Thirdly, having a small set of sustainable, open-ended resources means that easy changes can be made – things can be placed in different contexts by the practitioner, or new items can be introduced to the core provision to stimulate and skill. These small but simple changes can spark really exciting learning opportunities with minimal effort and maximum output. Lastly, with a subtracted classroom comes sustained sustainable play. The same items left for a longer period, transform into a multitude of things and are played with in varied ways if left entirely in the hands of the child. Enriched learning takes place and if the item is trashed by the end of it – so be it. It was destined for the bin anyway and cost absolutely nothing.

The UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds has challenged schools to eradicate single-use plastics in schools by 2022. How this is going to happen remains in question. But it does spell change and it does now demand teachers give attention to the issue of waste in schools and how we might use it rather than simply create it and bin it.

Georgeham Church of England Primary School in Devon is the first school to have already eradicated single-use plastics and Bertram Nursery group has banned all glitter and straws from their pre-schools, amongst other plastics.
“We have started the conversation. Now that we are aware of the impact we are having, we can become more conscious within our decision-making. As we work with children, we absolutely have a responsibility to consider the future generation and the kind of Earth we will be leaving them.”
Ursula Krystek-Walton, Regional Manager, Bertram Nursery Group.

The challenge remains to convince other schools as to the value of embedding culture change – to see waste as something purposeful and to find solutions in a creative and collaborative way rather than viewing the shift as yet another top-down directive.

So for 2019, the first step is to subtract.

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A year of subtraction

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