Dreaming of a green Christmas

4th December 1998 at 00:00
It's nearly Christmas. Schools everywhere are lavishly decorating their walls and corridors with glitz and sparkle, pillaging the art cupboard, ordering special gold and silver materials and planning parties with lots of goodies too expensive for any other time of the year.

Ho! Ho! Hold on a minute! Whatever possesses schools to start indulging in such extravagance, when the rest of the year they carefully follow good environmental practice, recycling and avoiding waste? Call it good cheer or mass hysteria.

Whatever, from the first sighting of tinsel in Woolies just after Guy Fawkes night, profligacy and conspicuous consumption grip the rest of the nation - to say nothing of the entire Christian world - so why should schools be any different?

Because, says Jane Mason, a teacher at Ridgeway primary school in Chasetown, Staffordshire, it's important to show children that they can create a Christmas atmosphere that's beautiful and fun without being wasteful. Which is why her school decided to create a sustainable Christmas last year, using only recycled materials.

And no, it wasn't all brown and grey and unbearably wholesome. On the contrary, there's nothing terribly wholesome about the red and green crisp packets that were used to create Christmas trees. The children avidly collected them over a period of a few weeks, as they did the red and silver milk bottle tops used for Father Christmas's hat and robe, and the used orange stamps and (inevitable) brown envelopes that were transformed into huge robins.

Collages of Christmas scenes were composed of shiny sweet wrappers and remnants of ribbon and fabric. And even the cards and calendars that the children made as presents for their families were made of recycled materials.

The critical response to these unashamedly home-made decorations was interesting. While the children were proud of their achievement and happy with the results, a few of the staff, in Jane Mason's words, "felt more glitter and sparkle was needed and bought some shop decorations to improve the displays. No child was as critical, as they valued their own efforts and the efforts of others."

When it came to organising the school Christmas party, there were more surprises in store. At a meeting of the school's eco committee, which consists of elected representatives of children, teaching and non-teaching staff, the children revealed that they had never really liked the luridly coloured fizzy drinks, biscuits and sweets that the school traditionally bought for the party.

When quizzed about what they preferred, they confounded all the adults by asking for home-made things and said they'd like to make them themselves with the help of mums who came in to do cooking with the pupils.

So out went the high additive content stuff in favour of blackcurrant drink, chocolate crispies, mince pies, shortbread and home-made pizza which they all had a part in producing.

Some children suggested that paper plates and cups were not very environmentally sound and that it would be better for people to bring cups and plates from home.

In the discussion that followed, it was agreed that it probably wasn't a good idea because they'd all get mixed up. A Year 1 pupil saved the day by reminding everyone that paper things could be recycled afterwards, so they weren't as bad as all that.

When it came to talking about other aspects of the party, the eco committee discussed present buying. The school's Parent Teacher Association had always bought individual presents for Father Christmas to hand out. They were tokens, little cars and dolls that were easily broken or lost, leaving everyone feeling flat.

The children said they would far rather that Santa gave presents to each class that all the children could share, such as lego and construction kits.

After worries expressed by some parents that their children would be disappointed not to receive a present all of their own, the PTA agreed to bump up the fundraising that year to buy good quality equipment for each class.

Jane Mason is in no doubt that the decisions made by the children were sensible and sound and that they fitted into education for sustainability by enabling children to develop their skills in co-operative working - particularly in thinking about alternatives. It also raised children's awareness of the views of others and stimulated their desire to participate.

Ms Mason said: "So many things to do with Christmas are about parents and grandparents' perceptions of what children want. We make a lot of assumptions as adults that are clearly not correct."

Although the thinking behind the school's sustainable Christmas was not as a cost-cutting exercise, Ridgeway primary reckons it saved Pounds 200 on paper and art materials and another Pounds 150 on individual Christmas presents for each child.

This year, they're doing things differently. Christmas will be celebrated in a pine forest near the school, where the youngest children will be taken to receive little Christmas trees from Father Christmas. You can't get much more recyclable than that.


The World Wide Fund for Nature is committed to supporting whole school policies relating to Education for Sustainability. Its curriculum management programme encourages schools in projects which recognise the interrelated functions of a modern school: the intellectual, personal, moral, social and spiritual development of pupils; curriculum, institutional and staff development; and links with the community. Schools which have taken part (such as Ridgeway primary ) are working with WWF to produce case studies based on their experience, and geared to issues such as teaching and learning approaches, data handling and special schools. WWF plans to make these materials available free to schools. In Scotland, there is a special scheme relating to the Scottish 5 -14 curriculum. To find out more, contact WWF's education department on 01483 426444. Scottish schools should ring 01887 820449.

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