Africa’s first green school ‘cultivates a love of nature’

To learn about fractions, the learners at the Green School South Africa bake cookies. And to understand how the water cycle works, they head outdoors “to play with it”.

“We have such fun with our learners because we enjoy exploring the real world,” says Alba Brandt, the co-founder of the school. “Doing things hands-on is how kids learn best.”

The school, which is situated in the Paarl-Franschhoek Valley, uses its indigenous gardens, vegetable patches, orchards and grain fields as outdoor extensions of its classrooms. 

These “not only teach us about maths and chemistry, but re-establish the tie between us as humans and our nourishment, and connect the school community to the land,” according to the school’s website.

Africa’s first green school opened its doors in February last year and educates for sustainability through community-integrated, entrepreneurial learning in a natural environment. 

It has attracted learners from across South Africa, as well as international learners from countries including Japan, Kenya, the US, Spain and Portugal.

It is part of the Global Green School Network, which was founded in Bali in 2008. The network includes a school in New Zealand and another in Mexico set to open this year. 

According to the school’s prospectus, it has a homegrown, comprehensive green studies curriculum that focuses on ecology and sustainability, with a “hands-on approach” that allows learners to “get their hands dirty” and “get mud between their toes”, while reinforcing the essential skills of reading, writing, maths and science. 

This curriculum aims to nurture respect for the natural world, heighten children’s environmental awareness, promote stewardship and develop deep ecological values, among other goals.  

Currently, 170 learners are enrolled in the school in its first phase; in its

second phase, this will reach 500. “This was all really daunting to do, because we didn’t know whether we were going to attract people,” Brandt says. 

“It’s a different educational model. We didn’t know how long it would take us to reach capacity for the first phase and we did that in less than a year. So now we’re ready to move onto the next phase and so when the school is full it will have 500 kids, from three-year-olds till matric.”

For now, the school caters for three-year-olds and learners up to grade nine. This will be extended to grade 10 next year. “Generally it’s about R4 500 a month for the little ones, and it goes up to R12 000 a month for the oldest ones,” Brandt says. 

“Green School has a learner:teacher ratio of 10:1 which is very important to enable our very different way of teaching and learning. Teachers interact with each learner every day, asking many questions and meaningful engagements.”

The school’s approach to assessment goes beyond standardised testing and includes a range of methods to assess learners’ mastery of concepts. 

The campus is designed to world-class sustainability standards. It includes solar power and has “a strong focus on water, with climate-specific water management systems that treat, infiltrate and reuse all water resources on site”.

The fresh produce from the school’s vegetable garden supplies the school kitchen, and organic waste is composted on site. According to Brandt, the visibility of this regenerative cycle, along with other biophilic aspects of life on campus, is, in turn, incorporated into the school curriculum.

“We follow the international green school curriculum and certain pedagogical approaches that are different from conventional schools … Because we’re so focused on sustainability in all the different grades and, as far as possible into the learning programme, we’ve got a very systematic, structured approach about how to teach kids about the environment.

“You don’t start with massive unsolvable problems that are going to overwhelm kids — you start with joy, beauty and wonder, and then ownership and agency and ability to bring about change. What we do is we take the little ones into nature and show them how beautiful, magnificent and miraculous it is.”

This, Brandt says, cultivates a love for nature “because the idea is that what you’ll love, you’ll want to protect one day”.

As the children grow older, they start with small challenges. “This could be about what waste we generate in our classrooms and what we are going to do with this waste because it’s something we’ve got control over. 

“And we can decide what we buy for our classroom and whether we separate it and then what happens to it. That circles onto campus and your homes. Then at the high school level, we start with what we do about recycling in a town like Paarl.”

Since its construction began, the school has pursued a zero-waste policy and worked with other local schools for Zero Waste Week last week, a campaign that aims to raise awareness about the environmental effects of waste.

For Brandt, it’s about shifting perceptions. Instead of providing bins for organic waste, wheelbarrows are placed around the campus. 

“A wheelbarrow has a very different connotation from a bin,” she says. “A bin suggests ‘something you throw away’, [whereas] a wheelbarrow suggests something you look after and reuse.”

One thing she is pleased about is how the school’s paper consumption differs from conventional schools. Their research indicates that the average school prints between 100 000 to 250 000 pages a term.

“Then what often happens is that teachers create reams of worksheets. And, then at the end of the year, you throw this away. We don’t use worksheets; we don’t print. As a result, we printed 1 325 pages across the entire school for the third term.”

This approach to education requires creative, innovative teachers “who love to engage with learners every step of the way.

“Individual, continuous attention to each learner’s social-emotional needs and academic progress. Educating for sustainability requires integrating the love of nature, the desire to protect it while nourishing each child’s social and emotional development.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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