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How to green your child’s school: a guide to a healthier, greener classroom

Ideally every school setting would be green and healthy. After all, your child will spend 1/3 of his or her day there.  Studies show that more than half of U.S. schools suffer from problems related to indoor air quality (which is typically more polluted than outdoor air even in the best situations).  Things aren’t any better in Canada, either. Indoor air quality issues can affect teacher retention, student performance, and even school funding.

Indoor air quality isn’t the only issue you can affect at your child’s school: food, toys, furniture, waste, cleaning, hand-washing and skincare routines are just some of the classroom practices that have a health effect on your child and the planet.

At The Green Mama we wish all schools taught environmental health and environmental ethics as part of the curriculum, but just as important as what is taught—maye even more important—is what is practiced.  The air your child breathes, the food s/he eats, and the products your child is exposed to at school can have long-term health implications for your child and for the Earth.

What can YOU do (realistically) to help (truly) green your child’s school?

A. Make indoor air quality a priority.

Children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Poor indoor air quality can cause or trigger asthma in children and common indoor air pollutants, such as some paints, varnishes, and cleaning products, have even been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, and hormone issues. If a daycare or classroom smells bad (or perfume-y), then something is probably going wrong with the indoor air quality.  Bleach and floor cleaners (and waxes), perfumes, and even markers can be common culprits.

Four ways a school can improve their indoor air quality (and that you can help implement as a parent):

1. Clean up the cleaning routine.  There are various rules and regulations that monitor how daycares and schools clean: what products they can use, how much, and when. Unfortunately, many of these regulations don’t take into account information on long-term health effects of common cleaning products. “Repeated exposure may increase your child’s risk of developing cancer, reproductive problems, or other serious health conditions,” says the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In 2007, the State of Illinois passed the Green Cleaning Schools Act, which mandates green cleaning policies (although there is an opt-out clause if it will be cost prohibitive, only four school districts have taken advantage of it.)  By the end of 2009, there were 10 states with similar legislation and 5 more considering similar laws.

2. Resources to help convince your child’s school/daycare. The Green Mama has a Green Cleaning Cheat Sheet especially for childcare settings. The EWG has a great one page sheet on the chemicals in school cleaning supplies and what can be done about it (and why). The EPA has IAQ Tools for Schools action kit with resources for school officials and parents.

If your child goes to a school or large daycare center the institution can look for green cleaning supplies that are certified by Green Seal or EcoLogo to ensure they are getting a truly green product (healthy for children and the earth).  Consider bringing in a sample product or show-off the power of baking soda and vinegar for cleaning your child’s classroom to try. And if your child’s teacher is willing you can use baking soda and vinegar as a safe chemistry experiment with the kids.

3. Perfume packs a powerful punch. Perfumes and fragrances, whether worn straight or found in sunscreen, cleaning products, or air fresheners, are often a toxic slew of neurotoxins and are rated among the top 5 worst allergens in the world.  Encourage your child’s school to develop a fragrance-free policy for staff, students, cleaners, and school supplies (and remember air fresheners can be some of the worst offenders). (Read this Ask the Green Mama on how one parent helped her school change an old air “freshener” habit that was causing her child to get sick.)

4. Open the windows! Outdoor air is generally cleaner than indoor air and simply opening the windows can greatly improve indoor air quality. As well, studies are finding that students perform better in classrooms with more daylight and operable windows.

B. Find alternatives to antibacterial hand soap.

Walk into most schools and daycares and antibacterial hand soap is everywhere. Antibacterial soaps typically contain the pesticide Triclosan, which has been linked to liver, thyroid, and endocrine (hormone development) disorders in children. Antibacterial soaps are also related to the development of antibiotic resistant Super Bugs. The EU labels Triclosan: “irritating to eyes and skin; dangerous fro the environment; very toxic to aquatic organisms.”  The American Medical Association, Food and Drug Administration, and Health Canada all discourage its use and say that it works no better than hand washing with plain soap and water.

What you can do as a parent to limit your child’s exposure to Triclosan and encourage safer hand washing at school: Strongly advocate that your child’s school ban antibacterial hand soap. Start in your child’s classroom by printing out information about the problems of antibacterial soaps and bringing in a safer alternative. Plain soap is the best (Dr. Bronners liquid soap is one of our favorites). Read labels (and avoid products with more than a handful of ingredients). Read more on how to find safer skin-care products and the problems of antibacterial soaps and on how to beware of greenwashing.

C. Improve school lunches.

Things aren’t great in either the U.S. or Canada when it comes to school lunches. Baseline tends towards processed foods with their overload of sugar, unhealthy fats, and unhealthy preservatives. The USDA, which is on record as saying that rGBH milk is safe and cloned meats are fine, is responsible for the school lunch program in the US. They in effect buy up foods that consumer don’t want and serve it to school kids in their lunches. A square meal: ketchup and french fries (which both count as a vegetable serving) and irradiated beef sitting squarely on white bread as the protein. Wash that all down with hormone-laden milk and it is  no wonder so many parents ask: “What CAN we do about school lunches?” (Read more about the problems with school lunches.)

Organic food is most important for children and babies: “Due to their smaller size, fast-growing speedy metabolisms, and less varied diets, infants and children are more vulnerable to health and developmental damage,” says Dr. Greene.  Food also can effect children with ADHD, asthma, and make it easier (or more difficult) for any child to learn.

Five easy ways you can help provide your child with healthier school lunches:

1. Pack an organic and waste-free lunch. There are numerous ways to get the plastic and even paper out of a paper-bag lunch. Cute “green” lunchboxes, tiffin sets, and BPA and phthalate free sandwhich and snack bags (like the Snack Taxi) are a start. Don’t forget to ditch the bottled water and Capri Sun-style juice drinks. The amount of garbage these generate is ghastly. Instead, get a reusable stainless steel water bottle and fill it with your drink of choice (filtered tap water being our recommendation).
2. Buy an organic lunch from an organic lunch delivery service. Yes, they exist! (I know of Gourmet Gorilla in Chicago…. please leave ones in your town in the comments section.)
3. Use organic lunches as a determining factor when choosing a private school or daycare and let the administration know this is part of your decision-making process.
4. Advocate for better school lunches through programs like the Healthy Schools Campaign, Healthy School Lunches, and Slow Food in Schools.
5. Educate about the importance of certified organic foods. Ask if you can bring in healthy snacks and use it as an opportunity to teach the kids and students about organic food.  Some of the most important foods for your child to always eat organic include: meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, rice, corn, apples, apricots, bell peppers, celery, cherries, cucumbers, grapes, green beans, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, raisins, red raspberries, spinach, strawberries, soybeans.  Learn more about the dirtiest fruits and vegetables and safer alternatives at EWG’s Food News.

D. Get green school supplies.

In most ways this is a no-brainer: buying the organic cotton backpack instead of the vinyl backpack will greatly reduce your environmental footprint. What about your dry-erase markers and scented pens? These are often loaded with solvents such as xylene, a toxin, that your child can be exposed to simply through inhaling the fumes. Water-based markers, chlorine-free paper, natural material notebooks, non-toxic crayons and paints and pencils are all available and healthier options for students and the Earth.

Simple steps to finding safer school supplies: Look for the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI) AP (approved product) label as a good place to start. (Avoid the caution, or CL, label.) Even better, look for materials that go beyond this label by listing all of their ingredients and making sure you know them all (and for young children would be willing to have them eat the ingredients). Find paper products that have the highest possible post-consumer recycled content and are not bleached with chlorine. Here’s an article I found with suggestions of greener, affordable school supply brands.

E. Help your child’s classroom go waste-free.

Many classes are taking on the challenge of reducing their waste, even if they are in schools or districts that aren’t as supportive of other green goals. The average grade school generates 45kg (99 pounds) of waste per pupil each academic year. Packed lunches are the largest waste culprit for many classrooms (average 67 lbs/year/student). One classroom could save 907 kg (2,000 pounds) of waste in a school year by eliminating lunch waste alone. Other ways to help the class go waste-free are to implement recycling programs and to start compost bins.

Fun ways to help reduce classroom waste:

You can start by simply making your child’s lunch waste free. If you are ambitious visit for ideas on how to implement a waste-free program in your child’s classroom. There are numerous websites out there with curriculum ideas to engage students in reducing waste. These include:,,

As a parent, getting involved in greening your child’s classroom is an easy way you can help provide healthier and greener options for your child and others. Plus, what better way to model citizenship? The Green Mama would love to hear your success stories. And don’t forget to enter our raffle for a FREE Green Make-over for you Child’s Classroom.

Further reading on the subject:,
Article by Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. Photos courtesy of Shutterstock. Happy student by Gladskikh Tatiana and parent with students by Golden Pixels LLC.

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