If you attend Town Center Elementary School in Plainsboro, New Jersey, getting good grades may not be your only concern. Ever since the school launched a program called Cool the Earth, the students at Town Center have become focused on the uncertain state of the Polar Bears and what kids can do to positively affect their changing climate. "When I walk down the halls, the students constantly ask me, ‘How are the bears doing?’" says 3rd grade teacher Jeanine Bryde. "I tell them, ‘We’re helping, we’re helping them a lot.’"
Together with several parent volunteers from Town Center Elementary School, Bryde was one of the first people in New Jersey to bring the innovative climate change awareness program to the elementary school. "What is key about this program is that we’re teaching the kids environmentally sound habits at a young age," says Bryde, who has been teaching for years. "This is definitely the way to go. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach a young dog."
Running in six schools in New Jersey and 95 schools nationwide, Cool the Earth is a free program that teaches kids in grades kindergarten through 5 about climate change. The program also motivates kids to take actions at home to reduce their carbon emissions. The program launches with a short play performed by the school’s teachers that introduces kids to the concepts of climate change using the familiar faces of the teachers in the roles of bad Mr. Methane and Mama Polar Bear.
"The kids love the play because the teachers playing the parts are big hams," explains Heather Dobbs, Cool the Earth parent coordinator at Alexander Hamilton School in Morristown, New Jersey. Dobbs, who has two children in the 3rd and 5th grades at Alexander Hamilton, feels that Cool the Earth explains the science of global warming in a way that has meaning for kids. "It tugs at the kids’ heartstrings when they hear about polar bears in danger; kids can understand that story better than just hearing about carbon emissions."
After watching the play, kids go home with coupon books containing 20 no-or-low cost actions that they can take to reduce their carbon emissions and "help the polar bears." Once children and their parents take an action featured in the book at home, then parents sign the particular coupon. The kids bring back the coupons to school to receive credit and incentives, like eco-friendly trading cards.
"Cool the Earth brings a new awareness to people," says Julia Kelley, coordinator for Unity Charter School in Morristown, New Jersey. "Not just to the students but to the families, too. That’s the part I thought was most valuable. The kids got excited and they brought that excitement home to their families, and the families learned something new about how they could help the Earth."
Operating outside of classroom time, Cool the Earth relies on parent volunteers from a school, which makes it easy on teachers. "Once the teachers realize that there is no work on their part, they are much more willing to embrace it," says Bryde, whose students took more than 2,000 actions within one month of launching the program.
Bryde appreciates how much the program affected environmental awareness on her campus. "Before we did the play, there were a lot of teachers using plastic water bottles," she says. "And now it’s funny, because teachers have told me, ‘I feel guilty using a plastic water bottle now, so I’ve switched over to reusable water bottles because the kids glare at me.’ It’s definitely a positive change."
At Alexander Hamilton, where Dobbs is a coordinator, before running Cool the Earth there was little consciousness about waste and garbage. Then Dobbs ran Cool the Earth’s activity called No Waste Lunch, which involves weighing garbage before and after encouraging the use of reusuable containers. "At first there was no awareness," says Dobbs. "The kids thought, ‘Oh well, a plastic bag, how much does that weigh?’ But by the time we were done, most of the kids had begun using some type of recyclable container. They figured out they didn’t have to go out and spend money— that they could just use leftover Chinese containers, or whatever."
Like a lot of adults, Dobbs— who has a background in environmental policy— finds it meaningful that Cool the Earth gives the tools directly to the next generation. "Some of the parents come up to me and tell me their kids are not waiting around for the parents to take action," she says. "It really hit home with them. They don’t have to do these big things, they can just look around their house and make changes."