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It always used to be a popular complaint among my school-aged friends and I as we struggled to memorize arcane facts or invent complicated mnemonic devices, “When am I ever going to need this? Why aren’t we learning something useful?”

Much of this attitude can be attributed to teen angst where everything just plain sucked, but today at the ripe old age of thirty-one, I look back and there’s a significant part of me which still agrees. As is likely the case with many city kids like me, I was well into my twenties before I had ever seen vegetables grow, or knew anything about sustainability, green living, or natural remedies.

I hope that one day I will be able to shock my now-two-year-old daughter with these tales of ignorance, and if the increasingly innovative school curriculum being developed across the country has anything to say about it, I will definitely get that chance.

Here’s just a few examples of how schools today are reaching beyond the basics, and teaching our children to be intelligent stewards of the natural world.

Hands-on gardening

Kihei Elementary School Garden
Image courtesy of Peter Liu.

One of the most common ways for kids to embrace and understand concepts like sustainability and green living is by getting their hands dirty.

Many schools, especially at the elementary level, have begun to replace expanses of bare tarmac and concrete with raised garden beds to grow fruits and vegetables.

Students help plant, weed, tend, and harvest the gardens and the benefits are incredible. Research studies report that gardening increases achievement scores in the sciences, improves environmental attitudes, increases how many fruits and vegetables teenagers consume, and fosters a respect for the natural world that lives on well into adulthood.

Civic action & responsibility

For schools in inner-city New York, it was essential that lessons about environmentalism take on a more real-world application than ice caps melting in the distant arctic. Instead the students of the Green School in Brooklyn are “encouraged to delve into local issues that may affect them and their families, like contamination in waterways like the Gowanus Canal, water quality or the razing of low-scale housing.”

This focus on civic action and responsibility turns environmentalism from an abstract concept to an issue affecting the quality of their daily lives, and one that they have the power to improve.

Workforce preparation 

garden science
Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This new focus also prepares the next generation to excel in green careers that are quickly becoming the one of the fastest growing job sectors around.

One such school is the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers. Located in Manhattan, it teaches its students how to acquire the skills necessary to create an Eco-friendly world, and upon graduating, students are prepared to “enter directly into the workforce in the fields of design, construction and operation of green buildings, or development and maintenance of green spaces.”

The basics – reading, writing, arithmetic – are essential to education, and always will be. But today’s pressing environmental issues indicate an increasing need to shift the focus of our education system away from ancient history, and toward equipping our students with the information and tools necessary to improve their future.

Feature image courtesy of David Cosand

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.