School Climate Gardens as a natural part of climate education

Štefan Szabó, SOSNA association, Slovakia, [] Silvia Szabóová, SOSNA association, Slovakia, []

The Ladder of Participation: Level 5


Environmental protection has become one of the most widely used phrases in the media, but in reality there is a lack of good and repeatable examples of practices that an individual or entity can help. At the same time, changing access to land is one of the most natural things that can be done. The use of school grounds to educate students about environmental issues is already a relatively widespread phenomenon around the world. School grounds are currently facing a new, urgent challenge: how to teach children about climate change, its causes and solutions at the local level.

Background of the program.

SOSNA association has more than 10 years of experience with planning and building of school natural gardens as the place for practical environmental education. In line with the new serious challenges, reflecting the state of the world, we have gradually added two other aspects of gardens: therapeutic and climatic. In 2019, we were the first in Slovakia to start working on the concept of School Climate Gardens and to promote their principles.

The aim of the program is:

Principles and components of climate gardens

Mowing. Let’s reduce mowing of grass areas to a minimum and grow a flowering meadow instead of lawn. Mowing with a two-stroke lawnmower is a significant source of greenhouse gases. Unlike lawns, meadows not only have rich ecological functions, but can absorb significantly more carbon. Another option is to create flower beds with medicinal and ornamental perennials (pamajoran, thyme, mint, sage, lavender.).

Rainwater retention takes many forms - from simply trapping in barrels to obtain water for watering the garden, through the rain garden to the garden pond.

Planting trees. When planting trees, we think that large, stout trees have incomparably more important ecological and climatic functions than low-stemmed ones with a short lifespan. The more trees and shrubs, the better — they create a pleasant microclimate and at the same time bind carbon in their wood.

Restriction of paved areas. Let’s reduce the area of paved sidewalks, porches or parking lots to an absolute minimum. We have a choice of grass paving, so-called “Threshing” sidewalks, or paths lined with old bricks, wood or gravel — these solutions allow rainwater to seep in.

Green roofs. They absorb rainwater and increase the proportion of greenery, helping to cool the building internally and reducing the need for air conditioning. In addition, they also increase biodiversity and contribute to wastewater treatment. The green roof can also be used in a tool store or other small building.

Green facades. From covering the walls of the house with climbing roses on the pergola, through planting ivy, the development has progressed to fascinating vertical gardens, which are actually similar to green roofs in a vertical form. These solutions not only help absorb carbon, but also have a climatic function — they cool the walls of the building in summer and heat in winter, thus saving energy consumption for heating.

Mulching. Laying the soil in the vegetable garden reduces the evaporation of water from the soil and at the same time increases the content of organic matter in the soil by decomposing the litter, which helps to regenerate the soil. And what is essential for the climate: the decomposition of straw helps to fix carbon in the soil for a long time.

Composting. The main source of greenhouse gases generated at landfills is biological waste. Composting is considered to be one of the most effective ways of sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And that is a big help for climate protection.

Growing your own vegetables. A part of the School Climate Garden can also be “kitchen” garden, where children learn to grow vegetables and fruits in a playful and attractive way, which is then used in the school kitchen. At present, 24% of greenhouse gases come from land use and agriculture. School gardens can teach students in a concrete way to mitigate these climate risks.

Building of School Climate Garden network

Our School Climate Garden (further SCG) program is based on continual work with schools in East Slovakia. Teachers from nursery, basic and high schools has been provided by trainings on principles of natural garden designing, principles of SCG, school garden as an outdoor classroom, and other related topics.

The program includes also methodology — how to teach the topic of SCG at school in individual subjects and practice — how to build SCG. Currently, in the city of Košice (Eastern Slovakia) under the supervision of SOSNA, with the participation of students and teachers, school climate gardens are being built and developed at 10 pilot schools.

The educational and information function is a common feature of all solutions realised in SCG.

Programme description.

School grounds have a huge potential for environmental and climate education. However, they need careful planning and a comprehensive transformation. The term climate friendly gardening has already become familiar in the world, meaning approach that on the one hand minimizes greenhouse gas emissions and on the other hand promotes greenhouse gas absorption.

Our program is focused on realisation of climate solutions in the school plots, with aim to create the space for climate and environmental education programs. These solutions are based on three key areas of climate aid:

Our long-term experience confirm that the most reliable approach is this sequence:

  1. Identifying and addressing promising schools with suitable land and active teachers / management

  2. Preparation and provision of a theoretical basis, which contains both the general principles of land design, as well as specific procedures and changes that will strengthen the natural and climatic functions of the land.

  3. Preparation and elaboration of the design of the SCG under the guidance of an SOSNA expert and with the participation of selected teachers, pupils and possibly also parents. It is well known, that children tend to have fresh and very original ideas, which unfortunately not all teachers listen to carefully. Therefore, if it is possible, our planning meetings include not only selected teachers, but also kids, who themselves express an interest in participation. This part of the program is very important because the design determines how effective the climate, educational and other important functions of the future garden will be.

  4. Building a garden together. The construction of the SCG is taking place gradually so that a functional unit is continuously created, which is built on natural foundations. At the schools we work with, the building of individual elements usually takes place within courses. These courses will be attended not only by students and teachers from the school, but also from other schools, so that they can learn how they can build these elements on their own land.

  5. Use of SCG. Building a garden does not end the process, but continues to use it in education and enlightenment. The purpose of such gardens is not only the climatic functions of the land itself, but especially a deep understanding of the causes of climate change, its effects and the possibilities of their prevention and mitigation. We must reiterate that educating pupils outdoors, in the natural environment, through well-designed educational programs, is one of the most effective ways of strengthening environmental and climate awareness. The ultimate goal is to change students’ attitudes towards green spaces and their environment, its management and sustainable use.

    Educational programs created and led by students are also a form of participatory approach. Here are some examples:

    • Pupils as guides through the SCG.
    • Peer education on climate issues.
    • Garden climate fests, in which children also take part in the organization.
    • Open Garden Days: parents and the public can visit the SCG, accompanied by students who will present simple solutions to help the climate. In this way, effective dissemination of practical climate solutions to the general public can also be achieved.

    What topics can children learn in the climatic natural garden:

    • Creation of land rich in life and its importance for Climate
    • Microclimate and what affects it
    • Adaptation and mitigation measures, differences between them
    • The importance of water for the climate
    • Water retention in the country
    • Composting and its importance for the climate
    • The importance of trees and healthy forests for the climate
    • Creation of healthy habitats
    • Renewable resources
    • Cycle of nutrients and elements in nature
    • Carbon sequestration (a method of capturing and storing carbon by plants)
  6. Long-term land maintenance system. Let us not forget that every garden requires maintenance and the SCG requires maintenance that is in line with the stated principles of nature and climate protection. A maintenance plan and schedule must therefore be drawn up, as well as a division of responsibilities. As for garden maintenance, we also support schools in organizing garden volunteer days, as a form of participatory approach.

    SOSNA helps schools in all of these phases in the form of mentoring.

Risks and obstacles

Among the main obstacles in the implementation of some climatic elements (garden pond, rain garden, retention tanks, etc.) are: the lack of clear legal regulations that would set the conditions and limitations for these solutions. At the same time, since the majority of primary schools in Slovakia belong to the municipality, the reluctance of the municipality to accept some solutions represents a fundamental obstacle.

Another risk can occur if the teacher does not have enough time to devote himself to this issue. On the one hand, implementation, on the other hand, working with children. It is important to create a group of children who will have their responsibilities, will regularly monitor the rakes and, last but not least, keep the climate elements alive and functional.i

Experience and evaluation.

Our experience shows that teachers have a serious interest in climate topics as well as innovative and effective ways of teaching about the climate. We have prepared a methodology “How to build a climate garden and how to educate in it” for teachers also participated and which was tested by children and young people. However, they lack inspiring approaches based on the use of school grounds and their natural potentials.

Conclusion & recommendations

The planning, construction and use of school climatic gardens requires a thoughtful approach, based on bringing the principles of the functioning of nature to school grounds.

A functional school climate garden with tailor-made educational programs can serve as an excellent tool for educating children about climate protection for a long time and practically free of charge.

And one last recommendation: if these types of school gardens are to work, they must be used — they must literally “live”. They must live by the programs that are prepared and implemented in them. Only in this way can they carry out their mission: to spread the ideas of climate protection in practice.