Our Burning Planet


Budding environmentalists are being cultivated through sustainable grassroots education

Budding environmentalists are being cultivated through sustainable grassroots education
The Birches’ chicken hutch houses 10 hens. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

It may be a school for three- to six-year-olds, but a KwaZulu-Natal eco-school is showing what can happen when a dash of green is added to everything you do.

The neighbourly quiet is broken by a chant, rather high-pitched, but very persistent. A long line of children weaves a trail around their school, shouting the refrain: “save our planet”, as they go. The pupils are dwarfed by their handmade posters, bearing the resemblance of ants carrying leaves much bigger than themselves. The posters bear an array of drawings and slogans, from a polar bear in trouble to “climate change is real”. The procession is guided by various teachers as they march around the school. 

Although Priscilla Edmonds, the school’s principal, insists that “we’re a very humble little school”, The Birches Pre-Primary School is unlike any other. On 20 October, the school staged a March for Climate Change in honour of the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). 

Priscilla Edmonds, The Birches’ principal, is committed to a green future for the school. Behind her is The Eco-Schools flag, awarded in 1994. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

As climate change is a relatively tricky topic for three- to six-year-olds to handle, the teachers turned the march into a family project. “There had to be a discussion as to what all that was about, so I felt each family could work together to put the poster together,” says Edmonds. The march was a great success; photos of the pupils and their posters were shared and the message of climate change awareness spread. The fact that these tenacious toddlers were able to grasp the concept of climate change ought to give one hope for the grown-ups attending COP26.

Environmentally conscious learning has blossomed since Edmonds took the post of principal in 1992. Her own childhood, which moulded her love for the environment, inspires Edmonds to instil the same passion in her pupils. 

The Birches actively recycles, which is educational for the pupils. The proceeds from the depot also fund many of the school’s green initiatives. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

I feel you cannot start too young”, she says of sustainable practices, “a young child has an enormous ability to affect the attitudes and actions of their family, and then their community”. This is the attitude of the entire teaching staff, all of whom embrace the practical side. Even the most tentative children soon learn to love the hands-on nature of The Birches, where a typical preschool day is punctuated with spinach harvesting and making art out of recycled goods. 

Edmonds demonstrates how to use a magnet to differentiate between aluminium and tin cans. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

The Birches has become a beacon of sustainability in schools — an example for many others. Eco-Schools came to South Africa in 2004 and, after completing a number of challenges, The Birches achieved its first Eco-School flag in 2005. Eco-Schools is the global leader in sustainable school programmes: the aim is to inspire generations of sustainably minded, environmentally conscious people, who in turn generate positive change. 

Pupils sell fresh produce, plants and eggs from the Farm Stall every Friday. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

The Birches has been a proud member of Eco-Schools for 17 years, and it takes the position seriously. “We try to keep everything at source”, says Edmonds. Sustainability covers all areas of The Birches: brown and green waste is used for the permaculture gardens while paper, glass and cans are recycled at the school’s recycling depot. The proceeds from the depot help to pay for the numerous green initiatives at the school.

Pupils get creative with recycled bottles. They are often asked to bring recycled goods from home for art class. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

Funding is also gained through various incentives offered by environmental organisations, opportunities which The Birches grabs with both hands. “Every year, we try to do something new,” says Edmonds of the various green projects.  

This mural, made entirely of recycled materials, shows a clean and beautiful KwaZulu-Natal, from the Drakensberg mountains to the Indian Ocean. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

At the entrance of the school is the Sustainable Living Map, which is educational for children and visitors alike. “We see our school as an island, and we’ve tried to lay out the campus so that the children can see everything that’s going on,” says Edmonds. The map details every aspect of the school campus, from the recycling depot to the permaculture food garden. 

The growing tunnel is a place of learning for the children, who water and tend to the garden inside it. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

Walking around the school, the sense of being on an island amplifies. The island is a sanctuary: children run around barefoot, shrieking with excitement when they are selected to collect the morning’s eggs from the chicken hutch. The hens at The Birches are doted upon, and they return the affection by promptly laying their eggs every day at 10 o’clock. This provides a unique learning opportunity for the children, as does the process of crushing the old eggshells to protect the gardens from snails. 

Eggshells are collected to keep snails out of the school gardens; another unique homework task. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

The Birches has had a lasting impact on each of its pupils, so much so that some have even returned to the school as working individuals. Zara Hoffmann-Jensen was a pupil from 2001 to 2003 and will be returning as a teacher in 2022.

Priscilla Edmonds, The Birches’ principal, invented a game to teach children about entrepreneurship and the value of money. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

“The Birches was the foundation of my education and now it’ll be the first school I’ve ever taught at as a qualified teacher,” she says. According to Hoffman-Jensen, the school is the ideal environment for foundation phase learners to come to love learning. “That’s what makes The Birches stand out. They really give their all to the children,” she says. 

Spinach is often on sale at the Farm Stall on Fridays, with the pupils proudly displaying their produce. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

Nikki Brown, the school’s governing body chairperson, agrees: “I don’t believe you can compare The Birches to other pre-primary schools”. Brown and her two children are all past pupils. Although both children are now in secondary school, the Brown family continues to recycle and grow their own vegetables. Brown gives credit to the phenomenal teachers at The Birches for this enduring effect.

The Waterwise Garden is full of indigenous plants like runner beans. The windmill is a functioning part of the garden. (Photo: Laura du Toit)

“The life lessons they impart on kids stand them in such good stead as they move on,” says Brown. She applauds the school for its going above and beyond to show pupils the importance of conserving the environment. The Birches has produced 30 years’ worth of well-rounded and environmentally conscious learners, prompting a ripple effect as these pupils share sustainability with their communities. 

At The Birches, “there is a green flavour in everything that [they] do”. If everyone could add a dash of green flavour to their lives, the world would be much better for it. Indeed, it is the small acts of sustainability that snowball into bigger change. The Birches’ pupils have proven that even the littlest activists can make a difference. DM/OBP

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Absa OBP

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