How to bring green into the classroom

how to go green school teachers photo

With reporting by Kenny Luna, Meaghan O'Neill and Manon Verchot

School teachers, listen up! This is a call for help. You are one of the first lines of defense in the environmental movement. In a few short years, the upcoming generation will decide the fate of this planet. And when it comes to how to teach children science, math, and geography, you're the best at it. The interdisciplinary skills they learn today will be the planet-saving skills they enlist tomorrow. Now, we know that's a lot to bear on your shoulders, so we've put together a guide that will help you in the classroom--and outside it, too.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to help children develop a connection to the environment, through both learning and experience. We know that most of you go back-to-school in September, and we have it on good intelligence that some teachers are spending their summers traveling and golfing, rather than working out lesson plans. We certainly don't take issue with that, and we have a handy cheat sheet to going green for school teachers.

From hands-on projects to personal responsibility, the tips, projects, and concepts outlined in this guide take a community-based approach to learning about environmental issues. You may not be able to implement a school-wide recycling or composting program, but you can teach the principles of zero-waste within the domain of your own classroom. And while you may not be able to get the janitorial staff to swap out for greener cleaners, you can show kids how to make your own eco-friendly cleaners from vinegar and water. Greening your school doesn't have to be about getting grants for solar panels and building a rain-water collection system. Those things are great, but it can also be as simple as opening the eyes of a child to the native plants just beyond the playground, or helping a student calculate the carbon footprint of his trip to school. Whether you're in an urban, suburban, exurban, or rural location, and no matter if you're a public or private school employee, you can choose this call to arms. Regardless of budget or setting, there's a lot every teacher can do to inspire his students to make the world a little greener.

Kihei Elementary School Garden Project Peter Liu/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Top Green School Teacher Tips


  1. Connect the Dots
    Instilling a sense of connectedness to nature and the environment--be it a forest, field, or urban landscape--is essential to helping fledgling TreeHuggers care about the world around them. To teach your students about global issues such as climate change and endangered species, look to local issues such as recycling, storm-water runoff, or air pollution. Making it personal and connecting it to your community makes it real.

  2. Calculate Your Carbon Footprint
    Carbon and environmental footprint calculators help us see how much impact we have on the world around us. If everyone in the world lived like we did, we'd need five planets worth of resources to sustain life as we need know it! Using these online tools as fun games can really drive home the point of what kind of impact each of us has. Learn about your environmental footprint and check out some of our favorite carbon footprint calculators. Then create a plan to reduce your group footprint.

  3. Conduct an Energy Audit in the Classroom
    You don't have get too technical to teach your students about energy use; you can simply take stock of where and how you're using energy, by assessing where in the classroom energy is going (and being wasted). A simple energy audit can help out. How many lights are on? Is there heat or A/C? Do the computers get left on at night? Determine where you can cut back, then create a checklist kids can follow every day. Adjusting computer monitor settings, turning the lights off before recess, have a "lights-off" hour once per week, and so on can help raise awareness. If you do want to physically measure the energy you are using, the Kill-a-Watt is a great, inexpensive measurement tool.

  4. Get to School Greenly
    Biking, walking, public transportation or the bus to school can all help reduce carbon emissions. Biking to school has even has health benefits and has been shown to be more important for kids than breakfast! Lead by example and try green transport options for yourself. Discuss with students their experiences in getting to school more greenly. What was better? What was annoying? Websites that can help include:

    • Cancel a Car
    • Follow Safe Routes for Kids
    • "Walking" Buses

  5. Green Your Supplies in the Classroom
    Whether or not you have the support of your school, you can do your best to green your classroom supplies by choosing environmentally friendly new materials when possible, and also starting a classroom program to collect and reuse gently used supplies from past and present students. If possible, choose 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper. You can also make your own notebooks from old paper.

  6. Start a Zero-Waste-in-the-Classroom Policy

    School-wide recycling is a brilliant move...but implementing can be tougher than teaching long division to an eight-year-old. If your school isn't recycling at-large, start a classroom-wide policy of "zero-waste." Set up recycling bins (teachers, students, and parents can volunteer to be responsible for removal), audit how much rubbish is created in a day. Sorting trash (it doesn't have to be gross) will help kids understand how much waste they are creating in a day, and where it's all coming from. Challenge kids to pack zero-waste lunches by using reusable bottles, containers, and satchels, rather than disposable ones. Competing with another classroom to see who can reduce their waste output most is a great way to create healthy competition and less waste.


  7. Grow a Garden, or Just Take a Nature Walk
    Creating a garden or "backyard habitat" on school grounds is great for experiential learning. Growing food and native plants can really help kids connect with the world just outside their door, as well as the food chain and sustainable agriculture. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation offers lots of great advice. If a garden is not happening, a romp around school grounds will help teach about natural wonders. Even in urban settings, trees, grasses, and wildlife abound. Get kids to pay attention the environment that is all around them.

  8. Compost--Outdoors or In!
    Getting back to zero-waste, starting a compost pile is a great way to make the connection between food, waste, and the nature at work! If an outdoor composter is out of the question, consider getting a worm bin for the classroom. (It's not as crazy as it sounds! Check out how-to tips for starting worm bins or get more tips at Instructables.)

  9. Bring Nature Indoors
    Whether you're in the city or the country, any classroom can bring plants into the mix. It's easy to build a self-watering plant container and get kids growing right in the classroom. You can also bring experts in the classroom. Field trips can get complicated and expensive; often nature centers, recycling facilities, and so on are willing to send volunteers or staff members to schools for in-house demonstrations. Added lesson: Explain that bringing one person to many means cutting down on carbon emissions due to transportation.

  10. Make the PTA Work for You
    Work with your community to identify group goals. From easy, inexpensive changes such as switching to greener cleaning supplies and swapping out light bulbs to major changes such building energy-efficient, green school buildings or getting local farm-fresh food into cafeterias, green changes often happen due to grassroots efforts. The Go Green Initiative, founded by mother and ex-PTA maven Jill Buck, has loads of advice. The group's ultimate goal is to unite parent-teacher associations across the country in an effort to help bring environmental programs into the school via parents, while giving teachers more time to focus on using those programs in the classroom, rather than having to organize them on their own.

Children planting trees and picking up trash as part of a school project by Paper Makes Planes/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Green Schools: By the Numbers


  • 27: Percentage of the American population that goes to school every day.

  • 32: Percentage of water savings in green schools versus conventional ones.

  • $20 billion: Amount of money that could have been saved by 2015 if all new educational facility construction and renovations were built to be green schools.

  • 30-50: Percentage energy savings of LEED-certified green schools as compared with conventionally built schools.

  • 26: Percentage of improvement for students learning to read in spaces with lots of daylight compared to those without.

  • 38: Percentage reduction in asthma in children studying in schools with improved indoor air quality.

Sources: USGBC Center for Green Schools, The Heschong Mahone Daylighting Study (pdf), Greening America's Schools.

Green Schools and School Teachers: Getting Techie


LEED-Certified Green School Buildings
According to the US Center for Green Schools, LEED-certified and environmentally constructed schools cost less to operate on average, up to $100,000 per year less. Studies show that carefully planned acoustics and abundant daylight can significantly improve students' capability to learn--and improve the well being of students and teachers. Cleaner indoor air means far fewer sick days. Plus, often, innovative design provides a hands-on learning opportunities.

How Green Building Works
"Green building" and "sustainable development" are the hottest terms in construction right now, but what do they mean, exactly? According to the Environmental Protection Agency Web site, green building is "the practice of creating healthier and more resource-efficient models of construction, renovation, operation, maintenance and demolition" [source: EPA]. Proponents say that green building is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and more cost-efficient. So what is sustainable development? Our sister site, How Stuff Works, explains.

Project Based Learning
Project Based Learning, according the website of the same name, is a method that takes a "comprehensive approach to instruction." Students, who are often more engaged when learning hands-on, participate in various projects, using interdisciplinary skills to accomplish tasks and goals. The Project Based Learning Checklist website offers customizable project checklists for written reports, multimedia projects, oral presentations, and science projects.

Green School Maintenance
Simple maintenance and facilities choices, such as using the Eco-Cube or Ecoblue Cube can save thousands of gallons of water each year because they allow water in urinals to be turned off, while letting naturally occurring microbes do the work instead. That saves both water and cash. Having a janitorial staff switch to greener cleaners--non-toxic commercial cleaners are increasingly available--can significantly help detoxify indoor environments by decreasing amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), leading to fewer sick days for teacher and kids, as well as increased productivity.

Get Inspired: 15 Projects for Green School Teachers


  1. Join Roots & Shoots
    Part of the umbrella network of the Jane Goodall Institute, Roots & Shoots is a network of green schools around the world that seek to make a difference locally.

  2. Build a School Library
    Work to add books about the environment to your school or classroom library. The Lorax is a timeless classic, but there are also lots of newer books beginning to hit the market. George Saves the World by Lunchtime, The World Came To My Place Today, and The Down to Earth Guide to Global Warming are terrific examples. Old standbys like Ranger Rick and Your Big Backyard (and the new Wild Animal Baby) from National Wildlife Federation are terrific magazines for younger kids and can help them gain an appreciation for nature.

  3. Face Climate Change
    Help your kids understand climate change by creating carbon maps of the school and their communities as well. Having them label carbon sources and sinks enables them to see what we're dealing with globally on a local level in a way they probably never have before. It's a simple idea that you can easily tailor to the level of complexity your students can manage as well as the amount of time you have available in class to create them.

  4. Write About It
    Engage your students' imaginations in a writing contest about the environment with the National Wildlife Foundation.

  5. Create Meaningful Art
    Turn the fight against climate change into an art project by asking students to bring in a pair of canvas sneakers and paint them for shoeless children in Africa as part of the Shoes of Hope program. The idea is that inside of every shoe your students include a personalized message to the recipient child in an African country letting them know what personal changes they're making to reduce their carbon footprint and therefore their personal contribution to the problem that is destined to strike children in the Third World hardest of all.

  6. Get Wind Powered
    Kidwind is an incredible project using wind power as a vehicle to help students understand the power of alternative energy. There are kits, classroom tips, and project ideas of all sorts to get involved in.

  7. Reuse a Shoe
    Think your students might have loads of extra sneakers lying around at home? Then maybe your classes could organize a local endeavor to gather them up and turn them into running tracks and the like via Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program. It's been going on for years, and schools across America have already gotten involved.

  8. Help Protect Wetlands
    Ducks Unlimited offers the opportunity for businesses to partner up with schools and school districts via Project Webfoot to educate students about wetland preservation. Businesses get the tax benefits of a donation to a worthy cause while students get increased knowledge of an important ecosystem. Maybe you've got a class who could benefit from the partnership?

  9. Feed Some Pigs
    There's a terrific program in Minnesota where all those scraps from school lunches get shipped to a pig farm where they wind up as food for the local inhabitants rather than piling up at the landfill. It could well serve as the model for a similar partnership if it's logistically possible to team up with a pig farmer in your area.

  10. Get Trashy
    How about engaging in a trash reduction contest with the class next door? If that teacher is as environmentally aware as you are it could be a great way to get both sets of students involved in reducing waste, particularly at the elementary level. A cool activity is to have students carry their trash around for one day in a bag attached to their belt or bags. They get a more intimate understanding of just how much trash they produce each day. Competition to get results is not the way to go.

  11. Go Frogwatchin'
    Why not get your elementary kids involved in a friendly Frogwatchin' contest if you happen to teach in an area where they're abundant? The National Wildlife Federation sponsors Frogwatch USA, and I bet it's a lot of fun for adults to get involved in too!

  12. Watch Some Movies
    Reach out and pick up a couple of the latest and greatest videos about the environment to use in the classroom. Discovery Channel's Planet Earth series is incredible, beautiful, and inspiring while the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth has been shown in schools around the world. As a great alternative (or compliment) to that film, you could pick up a copy of the HBO Documentary Too Hot Not To Handle. It's briefer, though highly effective at conveying the negative consequences of global warming for humanity, and therefore may be a better fit for the classroom. Have students make their own skit or video instead.

  13. Applaud Your Student Leaders
    Have students who are making a tremendous difference protecting the environment? Nominate them for one of Action for Nature's Young Eco-Hero Awards. Designated yearly, they recognize youth who are making a difference. Or, create your own school awards.

Tags: Carbon Footprint | Green Basics | Green Youth | Planet Green | Zero Waste