The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Edd Moore

Teaching pupils practical skills for sustainability

Edd Moore underscores the need to equip pupils with practical sustainability skills. He looks at student-driven initiatives, advocating for waste reduction, recycling and gardening projects in schools.

Group of schoolchildren doing recycling in class

Now more than ever, it is even more important for every child to know and be aware of local, national and global environmental issues so they feel empowered to take action on sustainable topics close to their hearts. We must teach pupils about sustainable living with practical skills that they can implement in their homes and across their communities where they can teach and inspire the next generation.

Refuse, reduce, reuse, refill

Schools are starting to teach children alternative ideas for waste, like the importance of having a circular economy where we reuse items repeatedly. Schools also teach pupils the critical concept of refusing, reducing, reusing and refilling before recycling their waste, which can save or raise valuable money.

There are many simple but effective practical ideas that schools and classrooms can introduce to reduce waste. Children can learn from these and use the knowledge in their homes and community. These include:

  • Place recycling bins in every classroom and office around the school. Ensure you label them by colour or size. Make sure everyone knows which item can go in each recycle bin. 
  • Reuse scrap paper. Place a tray by the photocopier/printer to put any used, misprinted or unwanted paper from the printer so children can reuse it in the classroom for writing, art and crafts. 
  • Start using refillable glue sticks. Learn Play Nexus has the world's first reusable glue stick called U-fill. Schools keep the glue container, refilling it with a new glue stick. They can reuse the empty containers or send them back to the company for reuse in production. 
  • Recycle school uniforms through a second-hand uniform shop. Schools can easily set these up so they are regularly accessible for parents. They help raise money for the school and reduce the need for a new uniform. Uniformerly is an excellent online company where PTA parents can buy, sell, give away and recycle outgrown school uniforms. 
  • Schools can put on a 'trashion fashion show' to highlight the issue of waste, challenging pupils to make a garment out of something else, for example, making a dress out of ties. 
  • Boomerang Bags is an initiative where the community donates material to make reusable bags and distributes these to shops in the local community. Customers pick up a Boomerang Bag if they have forgotten their bag and then return it the next time they shop. It's a great project to involve the school and local community – making bags together. 
  • Reduce printing and print things only when necessary, double-sided and on recycled paper. Keep everything electronic and consider using electronic school reports.
  • Recycle books. School used-book sales keep books in the recycling loop. Host a regular book swap. 
  • Waste-free lunches – adopt a policy for a waste-free lunch with refillable bottles for all children and staff. Include guidance on packing a waste-free lunch through a short film clip or tips in the school newsletter led by the children. 
  • Collect printing cartridges and toners from parents, local businesses and the community. You can send these off to be refilled and then sold or recycled. This raises funds for the school. You can even collect points for outdoor nature equipment at Empties Please and The Ink Bin.
  • Recycle food waste by building a compost heap for fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags and grass cuttings. Schools can invest in a Ridan Food Waste Composter to compost all food waste, including meat, with no food waste leaving the school site. They make lovely compost for school gardens and the children can sell it to the local community. 
  • Take items that need fixing to a repair café rather than throwing them away. Why not start a repair service with the expertise in the local community that could teach children how to fix items like sowing a button on a shirt or fixing a puncture on their bike? 
  • Take part in the Big Plastic Count run by Greenpeace and Everyday Plastic from 11–17 March 2024. Schools and households can sign up here. They can submit their results online as a class, school or individually. It will calculate their carbon footprint, giving top tips on how they can make a difference. There are also great resources for teachers to use across the curriculum.
  • Make your school a single-use plastic-free school by signing up for Kids Against Plastic and Common Seas, Plastic Clever Schools. Let the children lead the campaign. 

Jane Goodall Roots & Shoots Programme UK 

This programme encourages young people to implement practical and positive change for people, animals and the environment through projects in and out of school. Young people can log their actions on their school or group blog, sharing with a network of other schools. Groups and schools get rewarded with bronze, silver or gold certificates and have a chance of being invited to present their projects to Dr Jane Goodall at an awards ceremony in London.

Gardening project 

We should encourage school gardening so every child has an opportunity to get into the garden to learn important skills. These include the following.

Pupils can reuse the seeds from vegetables and fruits to plant new ones rather than buying seeds. They can then use what they have harvested to make a dish using weighing, chopping and grating skills as well as learning how to follow a recipe.

Proactive consumption

The large amount of edible food we throw away contributes to climate change. We are wasting not only the food but also the valuable resources that have gone into creating it. Use the leftovers to make other dishes like stews, quiches, omelettes and salads. Use the leftover recipe examples to turn into a recipe book to sell to parents and the community.

Other practical ideas can include opening a greengrocery by selling produce you have grown in the school garden or taking the produce to the local weekly or monthly farmers' market. This helps children's communication skills, teamwork and maths (handling money, weighing, addition and giving change) and increases their confidence.

Big up biodiversity

Biodiversity is important to nurture and encourage children outdoors to improve their health and wellbeing. This teaches children the importance of butterflies, bees and other insects within our ecosystems and the production of food growing.

Teaching children how to discover, identify and name plants trees, insects and birds in their school grounds with facts and placing this information in a nature journal is a great way to engage children in nature. Rewild areas of the school or make a meadow, picking wildflower seeds like buttercups, knapweed, teals, forget-me-nots and sunflowers rather than buying seeds.

Pupils can sign up for the National Nature Education Park and Climate Action Awards. These awards can help with the above where they follow five steps:

  1. getting to know your space
  2. recording change
  3. making decisions
  4. making change happen
  5. recording change.

Tips to enhance your immediate environment

  • Speak to your town council, adopt a space or path that needs looking after and bring it back to life so that pupils can take ownership of their community using the skills they have learned in class. 
  • Upcycle containers, such as welly boots, tyres, barrels and pallets, into plant pots.
  • Make bird boxes out of reused wood and a terracotta pot. 
  • Make bug hotels from pallets. 
  • Make bird feeders from pine cones, pumpkin, coconut or orange skins, apples, toilet or kitchen rolls.

Practical skills for sustainability – next steps 

Since the release of the Department for Education Sustainability Climate Change Strategy in April 2022, there has been more urgency from schools to teach children how to play their part in supporting their school to become zero carbon and helping to meet the 2030 target.

Making the natural world a central part of the curriculum is important in creating a sustainable legacy. This is the first step to nurturing a generation that actively wants to care for the world.

UK Schools Sustainability Network 

Children must drive the sustainability work. They need to set the agenda, help to plan activities, take ownership and ensure that everyone really makes a difference. The UK Schools Sustainability Network (UKSSN) is doing just this through setting up regional networks where pupils and teachers can connect with peers, share ideas and resources, collaborate on local, national and international initiatives, and develop personal, social and workplace skills. The network was set up for secondary school pupils but it does work on projects with primary schools. Schools can find their regional network here for more information.  

Outdoor Learning Award

Help pupils grow in confidence and skills through learning outside.

Find out more.

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