Leave It to the Children

February 14, 2008

by Duha Al Masri

By Duha Al Masri
Head of the Preschool at the "Friends Girls School" in Ramallah

This article was published in the monthly magazine "This week in Palestine" (February 2008, Issue No. 118).

Many eyebrows were raised when we decided to declare “Save the Planet” as one of our themes at the Friends Kindergarten five years ago. The theme was met with much shock because it meant saving our planet with the hands of four- to six-year-old kids.

At first our mission seemed too complex and hard to achieve. It remained thus until the children began to actually walk along a tangible path toward saving our planet Earth.

The early stages of the project consisted of visits to Al-Kaykab Garden in order to see what would interest the children, and there at the Kaykab compost they met the earthworm for the first time. One could never forget the spectacular reaction on the children’s faces and their consistent thrill in asking questions about the earthworm: What does it eat? Where does it live?

In addition to the uncountable benefits of the earthworm, it has become my muse for such a global project by making it easy for the children to differentiate between organic and non-organic waste, which is one of the major causes of pollution. Non-organic waste is not usually biodegradable, and the smart earthworm does not digest or benefit from it.

We started at the beginning of the year to create a compost in the backyard of our kindergarten; leftovers + water + soil + a few clever earthworms + will do it!

Every day the children became more curious as they gave leftovers from their lunch to the earthworm. “Miss, can we put this in the compost …?” “If we put in a plastic bag, what will happen to it?” The answer was, “Put it in and we will see.” “What about plastic plates and juice containers?” was met with the same response.

In February 2007, Mr. Saa’d Dagher from Al-Kaykab Garden came to join us and answer questions as we opened the compost. Five months later the children noticed that no change had occurred to the non-organic waste. The plastic bags remained in perfect shape, while other organic leftovers such as banana peels, apple skins, and breadcrumbs had gone through serious changes in texture and appearance. As the children went back to their classrooms they wondered how various items that came from the same lunch bag had different endings. After this experience, the children were able to distinguish between what is organic and what is not and came to learn more about the serious effects of non-organic waste on our environment.

We then started to observe our own daily behaviour at school and at home in order to see how much non-organic waste we produce and its potential to harm the present and destroy our future. The children and their parents worked together on this part of the project. The children filled in charts with their parents with all the non-organic items that were being used on a daily basis. I was amazed and grateful for the parents’ enthusiasm and commitment. When the children brought the charts back to school, they coloured them and learned that there are various “environmental lifestyles” - often noticing that more is bad and less is better.

Another task we engaged in was to check our garbage baskets at the kindergarten. This made everyone more aware of the prevalence of nylon bags and led us to ask why we use so many and what happens to them when we are done with them.

While children were classifying garbage, filling in the tables, and analysing the graphs, they were also learning counting, addition, subtraction, comparison, and even more complex mathematical concepts. As the children were trying to find solutions, they were practicing logical thinking and problem solving. Most importantly children learned that they have a role to play in bringing about change and that they can make a difference.

When we reflected on what we learned and tried to summarise it, the children came up with simple versions of polices that have been articulated at many international environmental summits. The Three Rs (Reduce, Recycle, Reuse): Use a basket instead of plastic bags when shopping; Bring your breakfast in a reusable plastic container; Make compost; If you have access to clean water, do not drink bottled water; Use empty containers for new purposes.

The children also visited the Ramallah Municipality where they were welcomed by the coordinator of the environment department and listened to when they asked them not to burn nylon bags and other toxic wastes. “Let’s find other solutions instead, in order to prevent air pollution,” they said.

The children themselves were very committed to their solutions and encouraged each other to use fewer nylon bags and compete for the “Friends of the Environment Cup.” And later on, when they were given new charts to fill in at home to evaluate their shopping behaviours, the results were very encouraging. There was a noticeable drop in the use of nylon shopping bags and water bottles. Even grocery store owners cheered the families who began to use the preschool’s cloth shopping bags.

This experience has made it possible for us to ask environmental and cultural organisations to support our creative environmental projects. We have been able to produce new and improved shopping bags and an educational DVD that illustrates our experience. With generous funding from the Heinrich Boll Foundation and sponsorship by the Ramallah Municipality, we have also been able to implement other environmental educational activities for the Friends Girls School Kindergarten, Al Kaykab, the preschool teachers in the Governorate of Ramallah, and representatives from the Ministry of Education. In addition, the GTZ (German Technical Cooperation) water and solid-waste programmes helped to fund two of our new projects: awareness raising concerning water consumption and the production of a song to help children understand the dangers of pollution.

All this and what is yet to come is based on the vision of our four- to six-year-old children - a vision of how to save our beloved and only planet.