What are Eco-Schools, and Why are They Important?
South Africa is home to ten UNESCO World Heritage sites that celebrate our country’s natural beauty and diverse culture. These places are protected, and people genuinely care about preserving them for the future. Sadly, the same is not always true for green spaces between buildings. In today’s busy world, it’s easy for adults to forget about nature.
That’s why we have Eco-Schools – a programme that helps children develop sensitivity towards the environment and a passion for protecting it. The Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) established the country’s first Eco School in 2003. Any school can join and over 10 000 institutions have participated so far.
What Goes Into the Eco-Schools Programme?
Eco-Schools is an international programme founded by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). It aims to teach children about social and environmental sustainability through a year-long group project. Each Eco-Schools project follows a seven-step process:
Write an eco code of ideals learners and teachers should strive for.
Form an eco committee to run the project.
Identify a problem to solve at the school or its surrounding areas.
Choose a theme and draw up an action plan.
Monitor and evaluate the project’s performance.
Link the project to the curriculum with in-classroom lessons.
Inform and involve parents, the community, etc.
Project themes include energy, climate change, water, and waste. You can find the complete list of themes on WESSA’s website. These themes are linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and supported by the Department of Basic Education.
Throughout the year, teachers and learners build a portfolio for their project, showcasing how they completed every step. WESSA hosts an annual Eco-Schools awards ceremony to showcase the year’s best projects and honour the teachers who made them possible.
How Eco-Schools Create Positive Change
Protecting the Environment
Eco-Schools projects often include initiatives like planting trees, reducing litter, saving water, and creating safe spaces for plants and animals. While these activities are good for the earth, the true environmental benefits extend beyond the projects themselves. Outdoor learning helps children appreciate the value of preserving biodiversity and natural resources.
Through participation in an Eco-Schools project, learners can develop a love for nature that may influence their future attitudes. These projects set the foundation for environmental awareness in adulthood, helping children grow into responsible citizens who care about the planet.
The Eco-Schools programme is not only about the environment. It also teaches children critical thinking skills and helps them cultivate a sense of responsibility for their actions. For example, a project centred around recycling will explain the connection between wasteful behaviour and resource scarcity.
It’s also about hope – learners from underprivileged schools may find it empowering to solve problems within their communities and become leaders for younger children. During an Eco-Schools project, learners work together, building collaboration and communication skills along the way. Projects that focus on cultural heritage can help young people learn lessons from the past for a more equitable future.
WESSA provides a project toolkit for teachers who register with the Eco-Schools programme. This kit includes guidelines on how to implement each project theme at the school with supportive learning materials for the classroom. Eco-School teachers can also join the Fundisa for Change Development Network. This professional community of educators supports its members in developing environmental content for their lessons.
The Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs endorsed Fundisa for Change in 2014. Through this program, Eco-Schools offers continuous skills development for teachers. It helps educators strengthen their lessons with real-world case studies and current global affairs that keep the curriculum environmentally relevant.
Step seven in planning an Eco-Schools project is to share it with the surrounding community. That means getting parents and extended family involved, telling them about your project and asking for their support wherever possible. In this way, Eco-Schools may teach parents about environmental issues too and perhaps ignite lasting positive change within the home.
For example, families that start collecting recycling for an Eco-Schools project may continue to recycle long after the project closes. One of the aims of Eco-Schools is to empower young people as leaders that encourage and inspire others. These leadership qualities often extend into adulthood.
Supporting South African Eco-Schools
Eco-Schools is internationally acclaimed and has been endorsed by UNEP as a model for environmental education. It gives South African children from all backgrounds access to world-class learning. WESSA partners with the WWF to facilitate this programme, and welcomes support from businesses and individuals through volunteerism and donations.
You can also support the Eco-Schools programme by adding WESSA as a beneficiary on your My School card. eWASA recently partnered with WESSA and will implement waste management projects at 20 schools in South Africa between 2023 and 2027. Click here to find out more.