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Green preschools on the rise

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Louise Lacombe-Morneau, a teacher at Le Petit Paradis, helps children make play dough using all-natural ingredients. (Courtesy of Le Petit Paradis)

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A 3-year-old sifts flour that will be used to make play dough from scratch. (Courtesy of Le Petit Paradis)

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Students at Le Petit Paradis roll out play dough that they made from all-natural ingredients. (Courtesy of Le Petit Paradis)

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Helena, 5, pours juice squeezed from an organic orange. (Courtesy of Le Petit Paradis)

At first sight, Le Petit Paradis resembles many preschools. On a recent weekday, a girl in a blue smock stood at an easel, her lips pursed in concentration. She brushed broad strokes of red paint over a large white paper.

“Madame Michele!” she shouted, pointing to the painting. “Rouge!” Michele Epstein, the lead teacher at the school, looked at the fat red strokes. “Très bon, Lina,” she said.

Across the sun-filled room, boys sat at a table juicing an orange. Nearby, children rolled play dough into flat ovals. They sat in specially crafted chairs and pressed flower-shaped cookie cutters into the dough.

But this bilingual French preschool on the Upper East Side of Manhattan holds the additional distinction of being eco-friendly.

The red paint Lina used was organic. So were the oranges that the boys pressed into juice and sipped from tiny cups. Teachers and children made the play dough earlier in the week using all-natural ingredients: flour, salt, oil, water and cream of tartar. The school’s tables and chairs are made from wood harvested from healthy forests in a sustainable manner—and so are the toys.

“The idea for a green preschool just came to me one day,” said Christina Houri, the school’s founder. “I saw the Al Gore movie and I liked his ideas. I thought that kids should benefit from this. They are the ones who will suffer if we don’t teach them today to care for the Earth.”

Le Petit Paradis incorporates the idea of environmental education—a movement growing across the United States—into many of its daily activities. The school's 25 students are a small group compared with the thousands of students who attend 127 certified-green schools in 33 states, according to the U.S. Green Building Council.

In 2007, the council, just one organization that certifies buildings as eco-friendly, launched the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design to certify schools. For a school to acquire certification, it must meet certain requirements, such as ample natural light, water conservation and efficient heating and cooling. Such schools often follow a curriculum that teaches students about the environment and how to protect it.

Valerie Werstler, an administrator at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said that building green schools is the “educationally appropriate thing to do.”

“Now is the right time to teach kids to care for the environment before bad habits develop,” she said.

That philosophy is spreading. Wild Lilac Preschool opened in 2006 in Portland, Ore., and has 45 students this year. The children learn their lessons in two former homes that were built in the early 1900s: Students ages 3 to 5 go to the Iris House and the 2-year-old students go to the Daffodil House.

Helene Hanson, its founder, said that the school’s kitchen is totally organic. That means everything kids eat there—oatmeal, bread, broccoli or potatoes—fits strict standards. The students have their own backyard garden that supplies some of the fruits and vegetables they eat while at school.

Hanson said the green aspect of her school is a big draw for parents in the area.

“A lot of families have composts and chickens,” she said. “It’s a crunchy, progressive place. People here feel that our school is a pretty natural extension of what they are doing at home.”

Children’s Garden Preschool in Minot, N.D., was named the first licensed eco-friendly preschool in the state. The school received its license from Early Development of Global Education, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental awareness and education.

School founders Sara and Shaun Bentrup practiced recycling and used eco-friendly cleaning products in their own home. When they started the preschool, it only seemed natural that they would apply their green philosophy to the school.

Those are values Houri of Le Petit Paradis shares even though the eco-friendly aspect of the school is not the chief concern of all parents—a fact she said suggests that going green may be part of the wider, unspoken appeal of these kinds of schools.

Being eco-friendly is as natural as speaking French for the children at Le Petit Paradis, said Houri. So natural, that some parents may take it for granted.

Tara Filipacchi’s twin 5-year-old daughters, Mia and Illia, attend Le Petit Paradis primarily to practice their French, which is their father’s native language.

“I’m not the most green mother, but I do recycle and I try to save electricity, said Filipacchi. “I like that the school is teaching my daughters to be more aware. They always want to turn off the lights and use the back sides of papers. It’s cute.”

Alexander Ploss sends his 5-year-old daughter, Helena, to the school for the same reason. That the building is eco-friendly is an “added bonus.”

Filipacchi, Ploss and others, who pay thousands of dollars for their children to attend such schools, tend to be progressive in their attitudes and are often highly educated.

While the organic snacks at Le Petit Paradis were not a main draw, Ploss, who practices healthful eating with his daughter at home, said it would definitely be a problem if anything but healthful snacks were available.

Ploss said that he and his wife never thought of explicitly teaching their daughter about the environment. It’s just a habit.

“It’s not always a conscious choice,” he said. “I don’t have a car because I don’t need one. It takes 45 minutes to walk the 30 blocks from my home to the school. When I think about it, it’s definitely better to spend a quiet time walking with Helena.”

E-mail: bli2101@columbia.edu