Environmental education is pushing into new territory next week as educators urge children and families to lead more eco-friendly lives outside school.
Starting Monday, 700 elementary and secondary schools will take part in the first National Green Week as teachers infuse "green" living lessons into their classes. Students at most of the schools will shun disposable snack containers for the week and opt for reusable ones to reduce waste.
Organizers of National Green Week tout the project as a free way to forge environmentally sustainable habits in a rising generation. They say the immediate steps children take to relieve pressure on the planet's resources are apt to influence how others live.
"We're trying to teach the kids that parents' behaviors can change to be more green," says Victoria Waters, president of the Green Education Foundation, which is organizing National Green Week.
Critics, however, say activists and educators are going too far in trying to shape how families live. Next week's initiatives add up to pressuring children to practice "an environmental religion," says Angela Logomasini, director of risk and environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.
"Let the parents teach the kids the values and the lifestyles, particularly since there is debate about whether these types of behaviors matter all that much," Logomasini says. The USA isn't running out of landfill space, she says, and parents may depend on the convenience and sanitary quality of disposable containers.
"If (a child) is going to be ostracized for legitimate choices that people can make in a free world, that's not right," Logomasini says.
Striking a balance
Educators in pockets around the country have woven environmental lessons into school experiences. Elementary students in Virginia Beach have begun recycling paper in classrooms. Children in Loveland, Ohio, tend vegetable gardens. In these programs and others, students practice conservationist behaviors at school, though they're not necessarily expected to repeat them at home.
Encouraging greener behaviors among students' families marks a new level of engagement, says Tracy Fredin, director of the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University in St. Paul. In his view, it's a commendable step that requires a delicate touch.
"Anytime you're asking people to change behavior, you run the risk of offending people because no one likes to be told what to do," Fredin says. Education in conservation represents an attempt at "trying to balance individual freedom with the good of society."
Most principals support efforts to help children and their families lead greener lives, says Nancy Davenport, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "I think everybody believes it's the right thing to do," Davenport says. "It's just a matter of finding the program or the time and making the effort to bring the awareness to the school."
Spreading the word to parents
Next week, students will explore how they and their neighbors might shrink their waste and carbon footprints. Fourth-graders may discuss how driving less and walking more can lead to improved air quality. Middle-schoolers will have an option to lobby local businesses to recycle their electronics. High-schoolers may tackle the project of reducing junk mail at home or learn how to identify eco-friendly consumer goods.
Sixth-grader Dane Ford-Roshon of Skyway Elementary School in Colorado Springs has high hopes for next week. He says he and his classmates can cut snack waste from 5 pounds a day to less than 1, largely by eliminating disposable pudding cups and plastic bags.
"I hope the kids will go and tell their parents," Dane says. "And then the parents will go recycle and use reusable containers at work, and then their work might get involved, and it will spread to a much larger area."
As environmental education evolves, experts say, it's important to frame greener habits outside school as options to consider. Children then learn to make personal choices informed by science, says Karen Hollweg, president of the North American Association for Environmental Education.
"Just picking an answer and advocating for it and teaching that as the right way to do things doesn't really serve our society well in the long run," says Hollweg, an environmental education consultant in Boulder, Colo. "What's most important for the educational process is to provide students with experiences (and) to engage them in the questioning, analysis and interpretation of data that enables them to look at consequences of specific choices."
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Special for USA TODAY