Environmental Education, Featured, Indigenous & First Nations Peoples, Social Justice

Preparing for a Changing World: Climate Resilience in Schools

Preparing for a Changing World: Climate Resilience in Schools

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2023 Issue

By Krystal Kavita Jagoo

The next generation is often thought of as the trailblazers of the future, but what does that mean when the future of our planet looks uncertain in terms of the vast impacts of climate change?

In April 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report called “Climate Change and Children’s Health and Well-Being in the United States,” which looks at the expected effects of the climate crisis on the education and physical development of children. It notes how extreme heat, poor air quality, flooding risks, and an increased prevalence of infectious diseases will reduce learning outcomes and contribute to learning loss for K–12 students.

The document also states that: “Exposures to climate-related stressors can occur in a variety of ways, some of which are distinctive to children, including through outdoor play and at school. Children … have less control over their physical environments, less knowledge about health effects from climate change, and less ability to remove themselves from harm.”

In light of these factors, it is important to not only consider how schools are incorporating environmental literacy in the classroom, but how they are responding to climate change on a practical level as well.

The Climate Ready Schools Project

One way to begin preparing students for the climate crisis is through a new concept known as “Climate Ready Schools.” Developed by Evergreen—a national non-profit organization that works with community builders across Canada to address issues like climate change and housing affordability in sustainable ways—the Climate Ready Schools initiative looks at transforming school grounds into environmentally-conscious spaces.

Too often, the outdoor spaces around schools are covered in asphalt—which captures heat and contributes to the urban heat island effect—and have little to no trees or plants to provide shade and prevent flooding. However, with a thoughtful, environmentally-focused design, schoolyards can become important landscapes to mitigate the effects of climate change, while also having positive impacts on the mental and physical health and well-being of students.

Evergreen partnered with the Halton District School Board (HDSB) and Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, ON, to put their Climate Ready Schools initiative into action and create the first school ground in Canada that was constructed specifically with climate resilience in mind.

“The site was designed to develop physical and social well-being as well as demonstrating how a [schoolyard] can be [made] resilient to our changing climate,” states Suzanne Burwell, the Environmental Sustainability Specialist for the HDSB.

She explains that the climate ready schools project also aligns well with the “Environmental Leadership” focus of the HDSB’s 2020–2024 Multi-Year Plan, which aims to “deepen opportunities to learn about connections between ecosystems, social justice and climate; elevate local environmental initiatives and practices; and design and manage learning environments that demonstrate a commitment to sustainable development.”

Students, staff, and community members were consulted during the schoolyard design process to ensure that the landscape would serve the additional function of contributing to child development. Along with a variety of native trees and shrubs to moderate temperature and improve biodiversity, and permeable surfaces to absorb rainfall, the finished site also has pathways, gathering spots, and areas that promote active play and learning.

“The climate ready school ground is used extensively by multiple classes,” states Burwell. “Professional development was [created] for educators on teaching outdoors and how to incorporate the site into daily teaching practices.”

Connecting with the Natural World

The Guelph Outdoor School (GOS) in Guelph, ON, presents another alternative approach to environmental education.

“We give kids a chance to experience nature directly,” says Chris Green, educator, and director of GOS. “In so doing, we create connections between kids … and the natural world.”

At GOS, children from Grades K–8 participate in nature immersion programs one day a week, while attending classes at their regular school the other four days. GOS’s main location is set in a cedar grove beside the Eramosa river, and includes access to all kinds of other wild spaces, hiking trails, etc. Through each program, kids are taught about environmental stewardship and how they fit into the broader ecological community, while also learning various skills like fire tending, shelter building, ethical plant harvesting, and more.

“If some [schools] are teaching about climate change, timelines, and CO2 emissions, we do the art and science of getting kids emotionally, bodily, developmentally connected to themselves and the natural world,” Green explains, “so that when presented with information, they [can] make sense of it, make good decisions, and lead compassionately.”

A former classroom teacher, Green founded the Guelph Outdoor School in the fall of 2012, after realizing the limitations of the traditional classroom format. He saw an opportunity to provide greater options for young people who learn differently and want to experience education in an embodied way.

When GOS first started, it only had five students. “Ten years later,” says Green, “we have a staff of about forty dedicated nature connection instructors and facilitators. We do small groups of fifteen kids with a 5:1 ratio. We want to keep it responsive to what kids need and are interested in.”

Green explains that GOS operates on “a mentorship model where there’s no one broker of information.” Kids receive guidance from several instructors who “are hired because of who they are, and how they are in community. We have a few people on staff who are certified Ontario teachers, but the rest are geologists, personal support workers, musicians, artists, etc.”

Returning to Traditional Indigenous Teachings

Students of the Everlasting Tree School in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory are reconnecting with nature as they learn traditional Kanyen’kehá:ka (Mohawk) teachings.

“Our curriculum is based on our creation story, which is where we received our original instructions as Onkwehón:we [Original] people,” says Amy Bomberry, Leadership Circle Representative, Karontò:ton (Grades 1–8) Faculty Chair, and co-founder of the Everlasting Tree School.

“We were taught that creation provides everything that we need, and it’s our responsibility to uphold the relationship we have [with Mother Earth]. Through ceremonies, we acknowledge the plants, animals, the sun, moon, stars. We acknowledge all of creation within our daily activities.”

The Everlasting Tree School was founded in 2010 by a group of parents and teachers, including Bomberry, who wanted to provide their children with a more holistic educational experience. It is also the first of its kind to teach and deliver Kanyen’kehá:ka and Rotinonhsyón:ni (Haudenosaunee) culture and values through Waldorf-inspired approaches that emphasize art, community, and nature.

“We’re outside in all [kinds of] weather every day,” notes Bomberry.

Students who attend the school are fully immersed in Kanyen’kehá (Mohawk language) through stories, songs, activities, and conversations, while also renewing their identities as Kanyen’kehá:ka.

“Our curriculum is delivered through our cultural stories and our teachings that have been passed down through many generations,” Bomberry explains.

On top of learning their ancestral language, kids are also taught about traditional foods and how to prepare basic meals. Food-focused lessons at the Everlasting School are an important part of the curriculum, and often students go on field trips to pick fruits and vegetables in order to see where their food comes from.

Some regular classroom duties for students include composting and recycling, and in the past the school has even organized a community-wide electronics recycling drive to raise funds.

“We’re teaching the kids to have a relationship with the land, to learn and understand that we’re taking care of the land, and in return, that land provides for us,” says Bomberry. “To me, that is climate justice.”

Bridging the Nature Gap

Although places such as the Everlasting Tree School, the Guelph Outdoor School, and Irma Coulson Public School each take different approaches to climate readiness, one thing they all have in common is their incorporation of climate justice concepts.

The climate justice movement acknowledges that not everyone feels the effects of climate change equally; often it is historically marginalized groups who are disproportionately affected.

“Globally, those who have contributed the least to climate change, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, are seeing the biggest impacts,” notes Suzanne Burwell.

As the recent EPA report explains, it is the children who are BIPOC, low-income, lack access to health coverage, and speak limited English who are at the greatest risk of experiencing negative impacts from climate change. Many of these children live in neighbourhoods with lower-quality natural environments and fewer parks, which only exacerbates these effects.

“Access to quality green space is not equal within our communities,” Burwell says. For that reason, the “development of school grounds to support and maximize [the availability of] green spaces is important for [everyone in the area].” Not just students who attend Irma Coulson.

“The Irma Coulson Public School climate ready school ground is open to the [public],” Burwell adds. It is her hope that the space will serve as a community hub outside of traditional school hours, so that everyone can take advantage of the environmental benefits it has to offer.

Chris Green at the Guelph Outdoor School is also conscious of the nature gap, and how spending time outdoors not only improves physical health, but mental health too.

“Access to programs that provide the mental health benefits of natural places must be available to everyone,” he says, “which is why we work at making our programs financially accessible by offering discount codes.”

However, despite all the work that GOS has done to improve accessibility, reduce financial barriers, and try to welcome more racialized students, Green acknowledges that while an off-road wheelchair could get into both of their locations, their Eramosa Eden site is much more physically accessible with trails that tend to be manicured, flat, and wide.

Working in Solidarity

For Green, operating GOS also means understanding his positionality as a white settler, and attempting to work in solidarity with local Indigenous communities.

“First off, we run our programs on stolen land,” he says. “We’re renters right now, but we’re working towards purchasing that land. And we’re looking at Indigenous land trusts that are happening in the States, and how we can bring some of that momentum up here. We’re [also] doing partnerships on a small level,” Green adds, “like sending a crew of our instructors down to support the summer camp part of the Two Row on the Grand annual event.”

Amy Bomberry appreciates settler allies like Green who are doing the necessary work of climate justice, and also highlights the importance of the Land Back movement.

“It’s so much bigger than just taking back possession of the land,” she explains, “because we view it like it’s our mother. We have a responsibility to care for her, and protect her.”

An Important Role

There are meaningful ways to begin implementing climate readiness concepts in schools, whether by incorporating Indigenous knowledge and perspectives in the classroom, creating climate-ready school grounds, or giving students greater access to green space—along with an unlimited number of options yet to be explored.

Schools have a unique role to play in the climate crisis.

As Burwell notes, “Schools are at the heart of our communities.” And by taking efforts to prepare students for a changing climate, we are shaping how the rest of society will be able to respond as well.


Krystal Kavita Jagoo, MSW, RSW, is an equity practitioner, educator, and artist. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Prism, Everyday Health, Healthline, and Auto Trader.