Creating natural play spaces and introducing students to real-life sustainability practices has been a top priority at Austin Elementary School.
“Everything we do here is to try and motivate the students to learn. We want to give them all different skills so that they have all of the competencies in place to be successful later in life, and that certainly includes education about the environment and sustainable living,” said Kyle McKinstry, the school’s principal.
The kindergarten to Grade 8 school has worked closely with the local Whitemud Watershed Conservation District (WWCD) on a number of sustainable development projects over the past five years.
“We have an amazing relationship with WWCD and have worked closely with it for the past few years. Essentially, any time we look to initiate a new project like these, we collaborate with it,” McKinstry said.
Last year, the WWCD recognized the conservation efforts and sustainable practice education that was being undertaken at the school, and named them the 2015 conservation district award recipient.
McKinstry says the school’s 122 students have always embraced these projects and often jump at the chance to get outside and get their hands dirty.
One of the main projects is the school garden, which is maintained by the students and harvested in the fall for a school feast.
“We have everything growing, potatoes, onions, and carrots. Our kids plant all of those items and tend to them throughout the school year,” McKinstry said.
A vermicomposting program was also established where students learn how to use earthworms to convert vegetable waste left over from their school lunches into natural plant fertilizer that is then used in the garden.
Most recently, the school planted a handful of fruit trees along its boundaries.
“We just planted 10 fruit trees out in our yard here, two weeks ago. We have cherry, apple, pear, plum and haskap berry.”
With help from the community, Austin Elementary has also put a focus on bringing biodiversity into the schoolyard and creating a number of natural play areas.
The school worked with the WWCD and community members to create a 0.77-km walking and cross-country ski trail on the school grounds.
Once the trail was established, students worked alongside the WWCD to plant 347 trees along its borderline.
“We did that all in one day. Got the kids out digging holes and planting trees. It was quite an event,” McKinstry said.
One of the school’s projects this year has been the creation of a drain system, which will incorporate a pump that students will be able to use to collect water for the school garden.
“We have water that comes off of our roof and it was just flooding an area out every year. So, we have changed it into a French drain with a little bit of a riverbed system.”
A number of the projects is carried out and maintained by the students themselves, something McKinstry says gives them an innate sense of pride and ownership.
“We believe that a school needs to be a place where kids want to come and if they have a part in building what that looks like they will be more likely to come and be successful.”
The school has also created an outdoor classroom that includes a number of sitting spaces, a chalkboard and a sunshade.
“The kids love getting outside. Most of these projects are about making the kids aware of what we should be doing, in terms of sustainable practices, and teaching them how to do it. The hope is that they will use these skills once they are out on their own and pass them on to their kids as well.”
WWCD manager Chris Reynolds said the relationship between the school and his group has spanned several projects including the large shelterbelt and most recently the outdoor classroom.
“Principal McKinstry and the teachers of AES are always looking for new ways to bring conservation and environmental education into the classroom, and the students are always eager to learn about the environment and conservation of water and other natural resources,” Reynolds said. “Their progressive attitude and leadership in environmental education made AES an ideal candidate for the 2015 CD award.”