Turning down the heat

Reducing your carbon footprint in the winter months can be particularly challenging. Find out how nurseries are using creative ways to do it and inspiring their children and staff in the process.

There's nothing better than cuddling up with a warming cup of hot chocolate on a winter's evening, with the curtains closed, the heating turned up and the warm glow of lights softly illuminating the room. It's an idyllic Christmas scene but also an image that should ring alarm bells for anyone who is eco-minded.

According to Government statistics from 2014, the average demand for energy usage on a winter's day was 36 per cent higher than on a summer's day. Turning on more lights, central heating and hot showers are luxuries that help us through winter, but they have a damaging environmental impact.

Nurseries, like many businesses, are realising it is their duty to curb their carbon footprint, and teach tomorrow's leaders the importance of supporting the planet.

Advice from Eco Schools

‘You're never too young to be eco-friendly. Getting the early years interested in environmental education is just going to continue,’ says Lee Wray-Davies, manager of the England branch of Eco Schools, the world's largest environmental schools programme.

This is why Eco Schools England is paving the way with its new early years pathway, which was introduced in September and is designed to make the programme's eco resources more accessible for younger children and early years practitioners.

Francis Hyland, an Eco Schools co-ordinator, explains that nurseries wanting to gain Green Flag accreditation in the past needed to ‘make do’ with and ‘informally adapt’ the schools programme. The new resources are far easier to use, for example, the environmental review has been adapted to include questions like ‘do you walk, jump and dance every day?’ instead of ‘are you living a healthy lifestyle?’

One way to interest management in joining the programme is to take part in a nursery-wide activity such as switch off fortnight, says Ms Wray-Davies. Not only is it a positive way to raise awareness, it is also a great cost-saving exercise.

There is a temptation to leave the lights on in rooms even when you're not in them. This was shown in a 2018 study by furniture company, Utility Design, which found that 6.5 million people admitted to leaving on lights when the room was not being used. This equates to nearly 38m kg of carbon dioxide emissions released across the UK per day.

Annual eco activities such as switch off fortnight are particularly valuable during the winter months when energy use is far higher. Teachers and early years practitioners create lesson plans, take-home sheets, films and games to encourage those in their setting to reduce energy use.

Faye O'Connor, assistant headteacher at Everton Nursery School and Family Centre in Liverpool, an Eco Schools flagship nursery, explains that children engage in hands-on practical experiences during switch off fortnight.

‘Children walk around the school, turn off the lights and identify when energy is being wasted,’ she says. ‘They create posters to promote the event and explore how energy can be saved. Children will count the light switches in the school, make tally charts and embed turning off electrical resources into the daily routine.’

Ms O'Connor says the children also visit local wind turbines at Seaforth Docks during the fortnight to gain further insight into renewable energy. The scheme is clearly having a positive effect on children at home as parents have shared that children are choosing to turn off lights and are using words such as ‘electricity’ and ‘energy’ in their everyday vocabulary.

Bid to become the UK's largest vegan nursery

As we enter January 2020, lots of people will be making New Year's resolutions. At Jigsaw Nursery group in Chester, manager Claire Doyle is determined the nursery delivers on a promise to cut out all meat, fish, dairy and eggs in the New Year in a bid to become the UK's largest vegan nursery group.

The group has consulted with a nutritionist to ensure the children will still enjoy the same health benefits from a plant-based diet but Ms Doyle admits the new menu will be ‘quite controversial’ for some parents.

‘We believe that meat has the biggest impact on the environment,’ says Ms Doyle. ‘For parents, the first feeling is how are they going to get their nutrients and vitamins but obviously all of this has been looked at by a nutritionist. I feel it is my duty to make a difference.’

Making small changes

For Cheryl Hadland, managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, looking at the smaller details of running a nursery is what allows the setting to make savings and invest in bigger eco projects. Even though Tops has gained an extra eight settings in the last year, its electrical use has decreased.

Ms Hadland explains that a good place to begin is looking at how you heat the building, a crucial consideration during winter as practitioners need to balance health and safety with maintaining lower emissions. ‘If you've got free flow where your doors are open you should have butcher sheets up, otherwise you're heating the whole county,’ she says. ‘We hang those on all the outside doors we're going to leave open.’

She also recommends that settings switch to using energy-efficient light bulbs as halogen spotlights are ‘an absolute disaster’ in terms of their cost to nurseries and their environmental impact. She says the LED lights ‘are not expensive, last much longer and use 20 per cent of the energy.’

Children at Everton Nursery in Liverpool enjoy being involved in Eco Schools initiatives

In order to raise the funds to make more sustainable changes, the nursery group even analysed its printing habits. Staff were frequently printing materials that would just be viewed on screen, so the chain drastically reduced the amount it was printing and bills ‘dropped through the floor’.

Such savings have allowed the nurseries to invest in more expensive, sustainable options. With the purchase of three more electric cars, it has almost completely replaced its diesel and petrol fleet. It also recently installed solar panels in four of its settings, bringing the total to seven.

Getting children excited about winter

It can be tempting to put outdoor activities on hold during winter. Fewer plants grow, animals such as hedgehogs hibernate and the weather can be bleak, but if you get creative, there are plenty of ways to interest children in learning about their winter environment.

One simple way is by investing in hydroponic plants, which can be grown in water rather than soil. This means children can learn about growing plants year-round and even see the roots developing. Ikea sells a kit, but practitioners can make cheaper alternatives by finding an old hat or coat stand in a charity shop and reusing plastic water bottles as vases, says Ms Hadland, which is also a great way to teach children the importance of reusing plastic.

Children at Jigsaw Curzon House Day Nursery in Chester make the most of winter by growing herbs that can withstand the colder weather and sowing seeds for spring. As nursery manager Claire Doyle explains, ‘The winter months are harder but it's about preparing for the next round of growing.’

The nursery also protects the animals that remain in its outdoor area during winter. The children and staff look after birds by making feeders because their food supplies have likely diminished and the children also have a bird watching hut where they can observe any new and returning visitors. ‘The caterpillars have gone, the butterflies aren't there anymore but there are still earthworms and other creatures to be found,’ says Ms Doyle.

A reluctance to take children outside is also an issue Tops Day Nurseries has looked to combat by purchasing outdoor clothing for staff this winter. ‘Some staff may not have good outdoor clothes,’ says Ms Hadland. ‘A lot of our job is looking after the staff, particularly the younger members such as our apprentices.’ As the author Alfred Wainwright said, ‘There's no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.’

Key Points

  • Energy usage is far higher in winter compared to summer, so nurseries need to get creative about how they can reduce their carbon footprint
  • Switch off fortnight is a great way to encourage settings to become more eco-minded
  • Making small changes at Tops Day Nurseries has allowed the group to make bigger eco investments
  • Even though less plants grow and animals hibernate during winter, there is still lots for children to see and do in outdoor play areas

Useful resources

  • Hydroponic plants for growing throughout the winter can be found at Ikea – ikea.com/gb/en/cat/hydrophonics-pp002/

  • Halogen bulbs – amazon.co.uk/halogen-light-bulbs/b?ie=UTF8&node=248789031

  • Cheryl Hadland recommends wireless electricity metres for teaching children and staff about energy use in their setting – geotogether.com/consumer/product/minim-electricity-monitor-led-sensor/

More information:

  • Schools and nurseries can apply to become an Eco Schools Green Flag accredited setting, which means they have strong eco practices in place and follow the organisation's seven steps, such as forming an eco-committee made up of staff and children – eco-schools.org.uk

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