Written by Dean Lisk Special for the Toronto Star
In many ways, the environment — connecting and having respect for the natural world — is at the heart of student learning at the Halton Waldorf School in Burlington.
“Children can learn so much about math and science by just being out in nature,” said Tara Thornton, a teacher at the private institution, which includes early years, elementary and high school curriculums.
Founded in 1984, she said the school is based on the Waldorf education philosophy, an approach to teaching children utilized by more than 1,100 schools and 1,700 kindergartens in 80 countries. This more-than-a-century-old method, founded by Austrian scientist and thinker Rudolf Steiner, believes that through free play outdoors and in their community, children can learn at their own pace in an age-appropriate way.
Along with spending time in nature, the curriculum at Halton Waldorf includes botany, gardening and farming, using natural materials — beeswax and water colour paints in art projects, for example — and learning about history and other cultures through their connections to the land. And, with the environment in mind, the school also looks toward the future of the world with green initiatives, like its Waste Warriors program.
First set up in 2008, it revamped how waste was being sorted at the school. Student volunteers in Grade 5 or higher would get together once a week to help ensure any waste was properly sorted and placed in the correct garbage, recycling or composting bins. The school even worked with BurlingtonGreen, a local environmental association, to ensure it adopted its best practices for the initiative.
“For us the emphasis is not on burdening young people but helping them to connect with the earth, so they automatically want to protect and take care of the natural environment as they get older,” said Thornton. “So it was really, ‘This is what we can do together for our school by working together.’”
A similar waste initiative is also being undertaken at Star Academy, a Montessori school located in Mississauga that teaches children from kindergarten to Grade 8. From composting and recycling, to reducing and reusing, it produces very little actual garbage, said the private school’s director, Heather Rees.
“In a two-week period, our garbage for the entire school would fit into one of those residential bins,” she said. “In our washroom for example, we have those brown paper towels to dry your hands, and we have a bin in the washroom that says ‘paper towels only’ — that is compost, that is not garbage.”
Part of the reason for the school’s success, said Rees, is that the students are involved in the program. Because of this, the garbage bin is empty, the compost pile is healthy, and the recycling is also full, she said.
Laurel Greig, a teacher at Star Academy, said along with instructions on how to sort their garbage, other environmental initiatives at the school include ensuring the lights are turned off when not needed, promoting litter-less lunches to reduce waste and drinking from reusable water bottles.
The school’s curriculum also includes a weekly class all about the environment and outdoors — even though it is not mandated by the province’s Ministry of Education — and students regularly make field trips to farms and nature areas (even once to a recycling plant).
“Last June, we raised butterflies and one of the biggest takeaways was that every kid who walked by the classroom would stop to take a look at them with that sense of curiosity and wonder,” said Greig. “We do Earth Day and we let the kids plan activities for it, so they have a sense of action and stewardship.”
“It is letting them know that even as youth they have a voice,” said Rees. “There are some kids that are anxious when it comes to climate change, but we are talking a lot about sustainability and environmental stewardship and taking about what we can do.”
While the pandemic put a temporary stop to Halton Waldorf’s Waste Warriors program, Thornton said it and other initiatives — like its waste-free lunch challenge — is being re-introduced at her school, which has won several environmental awards over the years.
Thornton said that by allowing the students to be children, and to learn to enjoy and appreciate the environment on their own, they will also grow up to respect it as adults.
“By doing that, we think they are in a better place than they would be by giving them too much information, too early, about big concepts that even adults get anxious about — like global warming and climate change,” said Thornton. “It can be too much, and then they just shut down from it.”