Claire Escriva is transforming early childhood education in France by connecting young children, especially in urban settings, to nature and the environment, and by providing a new Ecolo-Crèche certification to those early childhood education centers or kindergartens that commit to a high-standard of environmental conservation in their daily operations. By experimenting with new audiences and sectors, Claire seeks to change attitudes toward the environment and environmental conservation by reaching children at the youngest ages and by ensuring that those who work with them model the best behaviors in their daily activities.
The New Idea
Claire is creating a new generation of changemakers who will be naturally-engaged in the protection of the environment, and who will understand that environmental protection is not a complex, difficult activity, but rather one for which all citizens are responsible in their daily lives. Claire has created educational programs to connect young children (as young as one) to nature, through games and experiences that engage their senses and curiosity. Her programs cover a broad range of topics, from the discovery of natural environments to organic cooking, gardening or waste recycling. Based on the children’s interests, Claire designs her curriculums with environmental psychologists in order to arouse curiosity and sensitivity to nature and to generate learning. Using her simple, fun, collaborative and personal approach with young children, she has also broadened her scope and created age-appropriate programs for older children, including those in high school.
Going beyond providing educational content through these programs, Claire also seeks to enlist professionals (working with the children) to model behavior that will demonstrate that we all have a role in protecting the environment. Claire has created an Ecolo-Crèche certification for early childhood education centers and kindergartens that have committed to conserve energy, use organic products, recycle materials, consume fewer plastics, and take other steps on a daily basis to protect the environment. Each professional—whether he/she is an educator, or a cleaning and catering employee—commits to play a particular role in integrating ecology in his/her daily work activities. Claire is thus not only targeting children in the classroom, but also creating a sustainable daily environment around the children in which waste recycling, switching off the lights, eating local and green food, or cleaning with natural detergents, are common practices. Marked by an eco-label, these childcare centers and kindergartens demonstrate a clear, simple and direct way for an institution to play a role in protecting and preserving the environment.
To spread her model, Claire is engaging, as partners, local environmental organizations, education organizations, and governments, including the City of Paris, to train early childhood education centers across the country to adopt the environmental education programs and the standards required to be considered certified as an Ecolo-Crèche. Her goal is to have a national network of partners who will be able to train others and respond to the enormous demand she is getting from early childhood educators around the country.
Experts in early childhood education recognize that children’s long-term behavior and attitudes can be shaped by what they are exposed to and learn at the earliest ages. They also recognize that many behaviors of children are learned by essentially copying and mimicking the behavior of the adults around them. Over the last decade, early childhood education has evolved to expose children to many more behaviors and skills we know young children will need to succeed in our rapidly changing, integrated global economy, with an emphasis on social skills such as empathy, leadership, and conceptual skills, such as problem-solving and creativity.
Despite the enormous environmental challenges facing France and the rest of the world, environmental education has not been a part of early childhood education in France, nor have environmental protection and advocacy groups seen young children as important targets of their message. The main reason environmental protection and sustainable development have not been part of early childhood education is because it is considered too complicated or abstract for young people.
In 2007 the French Ministry of Education set new standards to integrate sustainable development and environmental education in primary, junior, and high schools. However, today, only a few thousand of the twelve million pupils benefit from the new measures. In addition, about 700 non-profit organizations around the country focus on raising environmental awareness among children and teenagers, but they target children over six-years-old. There is a lack of attention or concern for young children, from ages one to six, even though children at this young age are very curious and open to new ideas, and often the most interested in connecting with nature.
Over the last ten years, understanding the need to protect the environment has gained ground in French society. However, most French citizens still do know what they can do in their daily lives. Awareness campaigns have not effectively convinced a critical mass of citizens and economic actors to adopt green behaviors. Recent surveys show that 91 percent of French people have heard about “sustainable development,” but two-thirds need more examples and ideas for how to concretely change and adopt ecological lifestyles. Current strategies used by advocates encourage people to be more environmentally conscious on a daily basis may seem condescending, make people feel guilty, or are too childish to have significant impact.
Experimenting first with her own children, Claire has designed innovative environmental educational content for some of France’s youngest populations. By teaching them natural environment observation, gardening, and eco-citizenship (improved behaviors for dealing with waste and conserving water and energy), Claire shows that sustainable development can be taught at any age. Inspired by “active” pedagogies, such as the Freinet Movement, she gives children a central role in her workshops, which improves their capacity to learn and remember. Combining experimentation and an effort to reawaken senses, she shifts children’s perception of their environment while shaping a new sensitivity to nature. While they were previously not used in the educational context, the sea, the soil, and all ecosystems turn into rich experimentation labs, and waste—such as cans, jars or paper tubes—can be repurposed into amazing toys. These strategies were first offered to kindergartens to expose children to nature and the environment at the earliest possible ages. Claire has also taken what she learned and spread her approach through various partnerships with primary, junior, and high schools as well as extracurricular organizations all over the French southwestern region. Her non-profit association also owns an ecology-related after-school club that welcomes fifty children on a regular basis. In seven years, about 25,000 kids have actively participated in her programs.
Claire sought to reinforce the impact of her programs and curriculum by ensuring that the early childhood centers were operating in a way that reflected the values and ideas behind environmental protection and sustainability. To do this, Claire created a special Eco-Crèche label to certify those education centers that are committed to integrating ecological behavior in their daily activities. To attain this certification, she does an initial diagnosis or audit of the early childhood center and the ways in which it could become more environmentally sustainable. Claire then conducts a short and simple “focus group” that includes all employees. She asks simple, straightforward questions that are not judgmental, and are designed to reduce individuals discomfort with environmental protection or any guilt they might have that they are not doing enough. Claire also focuses on reducing their perception that environmental protection is complicated and tries to enlist them at the earliest stages in solving the problem for their particular center. From this initial diagnosis, she and the team develop an action plan that enlists every adult at the center to play a role in making the center more environmentally sustainable, whether it is turning off the lights, recycling, using cloth diapers, buying organic food, or other steps. Claire is also empowering these professionals through various practical trainings and tools (i.e. booklets, DVDs, a collaborative website, and a shared database of green providers). To incentivize and reward change at this level, Claire certifies successful initiatives with an Ecolo-Crèche label, which now has national recognition.
Boosted by the good results of the first twenty centers labeled Ecolo-Crèches, Claire has created a two-part strategy to spread her model throughout the French territory. First, she builds strategic alliances with kindergarten groups to reach a critical number of organizations (e.g. she is developing a partnership with the City of Paris to reach 450 early childhood centers); second, she is setting-up a network of partnerships to train and support the early childhood centers at the local level. Thus far, Claire has trained six environmental associations or consulting companies, and she aims to train up to 100 consulting professionals by 2015, who will then be responsible for training and supporting local early childhood schools.
Focusing on the growth of her organization, Claire also created a research and development lab to experiment with the adaptation of her methods on new target audiences and other sectors, such as tourism. To date, 8,000 adults have benefited from the tools and trainings created at this lab, such as practical-ecology toolkits, a resource center in the City of Marseille, and innovative workshops to raise awareness at enterprises and fairs.
Since childhood, Claire has had a deep passion for nature, that led her to study the environment. As a graduate in biochemistry and environment toxicology, she started her career with an industrial company in charge of a macro-biology lab. Even in this specialized world, she saw that people misunderstood sustainable development and were not conscious of protecting their environment. Claire also saw the growing gap between experts and citizens on the topic of sustainable development. With the vision of reconnecting citizens to the environment and to promote practical eco-attitudes, she launched the non-profit association A.M.E. with a biologist friend.
Becoming a mother further shaped Claire’s thinking about environmental protection and sustainability. Indeed, it helped her figure out new ways of transferring these critical values and ideas to others. She also began to understand how nature can be easily integrated by young children, even before they internalize other types of information. Claire tried workshops and games with her own kids and quickly created a complete curriculum with pedagogical content that she could offer to preschools. She received a warm welcome from educators and parents, showing that they were eager and interested in educating their children about sustainable development.
A few months after Claire completed the initial pilot tests with her new ideas, she consulted with a team of environmental psychologists to strengthen and validate her approach. She continued to develop her programs with young kids while continuously observing older children and teenagers. Engaging the children’s parents and professionals in the programs helped her identify levers of action for adults. Claire’s interest was to support individuals to find the best way to awaken his/her instinct and curiosity toward nature.
From kindergartens to schools and professional organizations, Claire has never stopped imagining new means of action to facilitate the emergence of a practical ecology that everyone can develop on their own. Despite the growth of her organization, she remains an accessible person. Ambitious but modest, Claire is sometimes surprised by her initiative’s success—to envision a deep transformation of society’s perceptions of sustainable development. Recognized in the environmental and social entrepreneurship fields, she has received many awards, such as the Nicolas Hulot Foundation Scholarship (2008) and 1st Prize for Women of the Earth with the Yves Rocher Foundation.