15 Ways You Can Create A Sustainable Classroom

Make everyday Earth Day in your classroom. Take the lead and create a sustainable classroom and inspire and empower your students to make a difference for the environment every day. Put the 3R’s into practice every day and build the foundation for the change makers of tomorrow 

There are so many pressing issues when it comes to the environment. The news feeds us gloomy future scenarios created by global warming, habitat loss, and the overuse of resources. These are issues our students will inherit, even though they had no part in creating them. However, we can make a difference starting in our own classrooms. As educators, we can model, teach, and provide opportunities for students to practice living in a sustainable way.

Most of these sustainable ideas are not hard, they are simply shifts in the way that we do things. As the teacher, you can model making sustainable choices. You can also set the precedent for how things will be done in your classroom and create a culture of reducing waste, reusing things, and then recycling. 

a group of kids cleaning up trash and recycling outside

15 Ideas to Create a Sustainable Classroom​

1. Reusable Water Bottles​

Save water in your classroom by encouraging students to use reusable water bottles. I put a sealable, reusable water bottle on my school supply list every year. Recently our school even installed some water bottle fillers. These have been a huge hit with the students and have prevented a lot of water from being wasted. Allowing students to keep a water bottle at their desks or tables does a few fantastic things. 

  • It keeps kids hydrated and more alert
  • It prevents my students from making 1000 trips to the water fountain
  • They are portable- we can take them outside
  • It saves water… the kids aren’t running the tap until its cold or letting the water fountain run

2. Create a Waste Free Lunch Day (Or Have a Waste Free Lunch Policy) ​

A waste-free lunch is a lunch that is free from disposable packaging materials. It is generally achieved through students using a reusable lunch kit filled with resealable containers, reusable ziplocks, a bento box, or waxed cloth wraps. This is in contrast to the mostly processed lunches that many students have that include disposable ziplocks or processed food packaging. Materials such as apple cores or banana peels don’t count as waste as they can be composted in the end. 

Having students bring waste-free lunches is a great way to reduce waste in your classroom. Much of the garbage that we create comes from the packaging from processed foods. Getting your students on board is a great way to kick-start the idea of waste-free lunches. 

This may be a topic that you want to approach delicately. Lunches can sometimes be a contentious issue with families. We don’t want to shame people, we want to help them make good choices for themselves and the Earth. Generally speaking, waste-free lunches are healthier as they contain less processed foods. However, many families are busy and believe that they don’t have the time to create a waste-free lunch. If you are introducing the idea of waste-free lunches to families you may want to ease them in by giving them some tips and ideas for reducing the waste in their lunches. 

3. Reduce Your Paper Use​

There are some tasks and assignments where paper and pencil are the best approach. However, we go through lots of paper in our schools, some of it being unnecessary. Teaching your students where paper comes from as well as process of how trees are harvested and turned into paper can help them to value paper more. We need to model this value for our resources for our students and make it feel safe for them to make good choices. With a bit of creativity we can reduce the amount of paper we are using in the classroom. 

  • Set up a “Good on One Side” paper bin. This is a bin of paper that has writing on one side, but the other side still has space to use on the other. Use this paper or doodling, working out ideas, or problem-solving activities
  • Find ways to provide assignments for your students that don’t involve a paper printout. For example, using an app such as Google Classroom or SeeSaw allows students to access their assignments from any device.
  • Find interesting ways for students to share their learning. Students could create a podcast instead of writing an essay or a Slides presentation instead of a poster. 
  • Don’t print out something unless it needs to be printed out. I often battle with the photocopy machine and end up with needless copies. Being more mindful of what I’m printing can help prevent this (I’m still working on this…I think the photocopier hates me!)  
a group of students creating a recycling project

4. Recycle…and then Recycle Some More​

Make it easy for your students to recycle. Know what you are able to recycle in your area and set up a recycling (or reusing) station. You may need to spend some time educating your students about recycling and how/why we recycle. Don’t assume that everyone knows the best practices for recycling. Start slow and don’t try to introduce too many things at once. Once your students get the gist of recycling, they can become the recycling leaders in the school. 

If available, you may want to look into some of the less obvious items that can be recycled in your area. For example, we are able to recycle used markers and pens at Staples. We are also able to recycle batteries, printer cartridges, and CFL bulbs. In some communities you can even recycle empty glue sticks. Be sure to check with your community guidelines so that you are not burdening the system with un-recyclable items or “wish-cycling.”

5. Get Outside Every Day​

Getting outside every day is not only good for your student’s health and well-being, but also good for the Earth. Getting outside allows students to learn about nature from nature. They start to build connections to nature and begin to see their own place in nature. This connection is one of the best ways to empower your students to make a difference for the Earth. 

For ways to get your students outside check out these posts:

kids outside exploring a tree

6. Turn off the Power​

One very simple way of saving power is to turn out the lights. It’s as easy as turning out the lights when you leave the classroom. You can assign a student to be in charge of the lights or set the expectation that if you are the last person to leave the room you turn out the lights on the way out. I’ve even had younger student create signs to go above the light switch reminding others to turn out the lights. 

More tricky is ensuring that computers are turned off. You may not be able to turn off your classroom computer every night (ask your IT person about it…they may have some suggestions about powering down.) However, you might be able to do it over school breaks or weekends. The same goes for charging devices for devices such as iPads, voice amplifiers, etc. Every little bit counts. 

7. Aim for Paper Free Communication ​

I love using apps to communicate with families. With an app such as SeeSaw, I can send messages to families and not have to worry about the note getting lost on the way home, or not being delivered to the family once it gets home. I have saved so much time (I don’t have to create cute, creatively formatted, weekly newsletters anymore) as well as paper using these apps. 

8. Bring Nature In​

If you can’t get outside with your students, why not bring some nature into your classroom. Bring in some plants to create a healthy, welcoming environment. Or maybe you want a class pet (we have an antisocial gold fish.) Looking after the plants or animals in the classroom gives students a sense of responsibility. They begin to understand the needs of these living things for survival as well as how our actions can affect them in either a positive or negative way. 

9. Create a Safe Space for Sharing Ideas​

Intentionally work to create a classroom community where students can feel safe sharing their ideas, concerns, or beliefs about the environment. We all know that many environmental issues can be contentious and even divisive. Many issues also affect populations differently, with those in vulnerable or minority populations being more greatly impacted by environmental degradation. Students need to have the opportunity to be heard and have their experiences recognized regardless of their gender, race, abilities, sexual orientation, economic standing, or age. 

Creating a space where everyone feels valued, welcomed, and heard will go a long way. Provide each student with opportunities to share their stories and experiences without interruption. Additionally, don’t force students to share when they don’t feel comfortable. Teach your students how to respond respectfully to others during discussions. Provide space for students to respectfully disagree with each other. 

Most importantly ensure that all of your students know and feel like their voice matters and their experience is real. 

3 kids cleaning up trash

10. Get Involved in the Community​

Joining in with community initiatives can give your students a sense of belonging and empowerment. When we join in with a larger body and work towards a common goal we begin to see some of the importance of our work. Look to see if there are any activities that are happening in your community that your students can play a role in. If it is an event like a protest, check in with your school administration to see what school policies are for participation in such events. 

11. Empower Your Students to Make a Difference​

As you learn about different topics and issues through science or social studies lessons, check in with your students to see if there are any issues that they are passionate about. Ask them what they can do that will make a difference. Is there a way that they can draw awareness to the issue? Or maybe they want to raise money for a specific cause. Empower and support your students to make a difference in the world and watch their motivation soar. have had students take on lengthy fundraising projects that covered multiple subjects. They were empowered and motivated to make a difference and the results were fantastic. 

12. Hold Waste Free Events​

Keep your classroom or school events waste free. You can have students bring their own reusable set of dishes to an event. If available to you, you might also want to purchase your own inexpensive class set of cutlery, cups, and dishes. (Check out dollar stores during picnic season.) Depending on your school, the logistics of washing the dishes afterwards might be challenging. Using reusable dishes is an easy way to make a big difference in the amount of trash we create.

two kids holding produce from the garden

13. Plant Something​

Depending on how ambitious you are and the space available to you, you can make this project as big or small as you like. You can go big and plant a school garden, a butterfly garden, or a native plants garden. Or maybe you just want to try something small to start with, like planting a single tree, a planter box, or maybe some indoor plants. 

Giving your students the opportunity to plant and tend to their plants allows them to experience the magic of growing something themselves. It helps to connect students to the plants around them and understand their importance in our lives. As they watch them grow they gain a greater understanding of their role in the ecosystem and food system. 

14. Set Up A Classroom Composter​

This one might not be for everyone, especially if you aren’t a “worm person.” Having a classroom composter takes a bit of work, but the kids love it. I have had homemade worm composters in my classroom at various times in my career (I don’t have one right now because we don’t have a space and my last set of worms didn’t survive the first Covid lockdown.) The kids think the worms are cool and they love to take responsibility for looking after them. Some of them even called them our class pet!

If you are new to composting, do some research ahead of time. There are many indoor composters that are available commercially or you can make one yourself. Our composter was just a Rubbermaid bin with holes drilled in it (we worked together to drill the holes as a class) and a batch of red-wiggler worms that a family at school had provided for us. Each week we would collect our classroom banana peels, bread crusts, and apple cores and then feed them to the worms.

The composter allowed the students to see how decomposition works. It also exposed them to different ways that we can deal with waste and return some of it back to the earth. 

15. Celebrate​

Celebrate the differences that you are making for your school, community, and the world. Making good choices for the environment doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. In fact, all doom and gloom just leads to burnout. Take some time to celebrate the wins, whether they are big or small. 

Some fun ways to celebrate:

  • hold an eco-fair (for the school, families, or community)
  • host and Earth Day party
  • host a school-wide challenge 
  • tell your mayor, MLA, MP (government leaders) about what you have done
  • visit a conservation area
3 kids wearing capes and recycling logo shirts

It’s Time To Take Action…What are You Going to Do to Create a Sustainable Classroom?​

There are so many ways that all students, from kindergarten to high school, can make a difference for the Environment. To create your sustainable classroom find what works best for your students, community, and you. Choose one or two small, doable things to start with and then build on that momentum. Trying to do everything all at once will lead to confusion, burnout, and nothing getting done. 

There may be some hiccups along the way. Use these hiccups as learning experiences that you can build upon to make your actions even greater. Discuss what is working and what needs to be improved with your students. You might be surprised by the suggestions that they come up with. The biggest thing is to not give up.

Most importantly, listen to the students and give them opportunities to take the lead. You may be amazed at what they are passionate about. Out of the blue, I had a grade 5/6 class start a multi-month fundraising project to clean plastic out of the ocean. They became experts on marketing their ideas, fundraising, and communicating. Their passion and motivation was amazing. I couldn’t have created these results even with the most carefully crafted lesson plans.

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