Perhaps the only thing more important than making sustainability important in your own life is making sure it's important to your kids. It took decades to create a culture of waste and conspicuous consumption. It will probably take decades to swing it back — which means our jobs aren't done until our kids see that learning to tread more lightly upon the Earth as their own cause.

That process starts at home, but it also has to happen at school.

So what can you do to make sure schools are helping to equip the next generation for the ecological challenges they face? Get involved. And do what you can to ensure that the traditional Three R's — reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic — make a little room for reduce, reuse and recycle.

1. Join your PTA

Your school's PTA is your best opportunity to talk directly with teachers about what actually happens in the classroom. Most teachers are thrilled to have parental participation. Jump in, and you'll learn how influential active parents can be.

Find out if your child's classroom encourages recycling. There's a ton of paper that goes to waste at most schools. Ask if you can place a couple of recycling bins for kids to drop their recyclable waste. Good lifetime habits get established early.

You'll also have the opportunity to ask teachers about how sustainability issues are being taught. Is there sufficient emphasis on earth sciences? Are kids being instructed on the resource and environmental challenges which they'll face as adults? While global warming may be a political hot potato in some areas, there are plenty of solid, non-controversial teaching materials that will help your kids better understand the world around them.

In short, let your child's teacher know what you find important, and make yourself available to give it legs.

2. Help organize a school sustainability fair

A lot of schools make a big deal of Earth Day. Participate! Earth Day is a fun opportunity to get kids thinking about the environment and what they can do about it.

In some cases, you may be able to suggest a school Sustainability Day. This can happen anytime during the year: an event demonstrating recycling techniques, environmental science and the importance of community action.

Work your professional connections and see if local businesses might be interested in underwriting or participating in a sustainability fair. It's an opportunity for them to tell their story, and a chance to bring resources to bear on stretched classroom budgets.

3. Use the school bus system

In the United States, most kids get dropped off at school by their parent(s). Older kids start driving in high school. And we wonder why public transportation is in such poor shape in the States.

Put your kids on the bus, if it's available. It's more than just saving at the pump each week: you're teaching children about mass transit. And let them help you figure out the bus schedules. It's a skill they'll need as adults.

4. Talk to the school board

School board meetings are usually public, and most make time for public questions. Here are a few: how is the school district working to make classrooms more energy efficient? Are new structures following LEED guidelines for green construction? What's the plan for upgrading the fleet mileage of your district's school buses?

A lot of districts will have great answers. Others may still be grappling with the idea of greening their operations. Step up to the microphone and find out.

If you have special professional skills in these areas, make them available. It really doesn't matter if you have a kid in public or private school — it's all about improving local communities.

5. Don't ignore the little things

If it's close enough and fits your schedule, walk your kids to school. The cars idling wastefully in the pickup line only drove a few blocks to get there. Put some shoe leather to your belief in saving energy.

Schools dispose of tons of garbage every month. If your kids take their lunch to school — which may be better nutrition than what they can buy — send it in reusable containers. Remember the lunch box? No need to waste paper sacks. Prefer resealable containers to plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Forget those wasteful little boxed drinks: buy a shatterproof thermos. Insist that any leftover waste comes home for composting or recycling.

Kids are internally wired to notice how their parents behave. It's how they learn to be adults themselves. How you treat the Earth's resources will be an important factor in the way your children live — and all the generations that follow.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2007