In a recent interview, Dr. James Duval, Associate Head of School and Head of Lower School, discusses a commitment to environmental stewardship and how sustainability is an integral part of Lower School curriculum.

What are some of the most recent sustainability initiatives on the River campus?

The most recent sustainability initiative is our ongoing effort as a leadership team to have a better understanding of our environmental footprint on the River campus. We began with a waste audit last year and have more recently been looking at water and energy usage as well. In addition to establishing baseline data points that serve as important points of reference within the curriculum, our goal is to establish a sustainability plan for the River campus that identifies specific targets for improvements over time. 

How does Riverdale instill a commitment to environmental stewardship in our students?

As we think about the idea of environmental stewardship, there are four themes woven into our work.

First, we think about biophilia, which is essentially our innate desire as humans to connect with living things. We tap into this very human quality by ensuring that all of our students have opportunities to explore nature in open-ended ways that foster a sense of connection and curiosity. Between enjoying the spaces on campus, embarking on nature walks, and engaging in open play opportunities in the forest, exploring the natural world is an integral part of the Lower School experience. 

Second, we are increasingly intentional about concepts of identity and diversity within the natural world. Knowing that we focus on celebrating the identity and diversity of students, families, and faculty, our aim is to extend this same appreciation into the realm of how we relate to all living things. We want children to navigate their surroundings and understand that each living entity is unique and that there is tremendous beauty in the infinite diversity that exists in the world.

Third, as students build their understanding and appreciation of all living things, we push them to reflect upon the complexity of ecosystems. We want them to think about how each living thing has an impact on its environment, often in ways that either create harmony or dissonance, and the manner in which our knowledge and efforts can help ecosystems thrive. 

Last, we want our students to be increasingly aware and mindful about sustainability in the modern world. We are shifting our curriculum to include a greater focus on water conservation, sustainable energy, and thinking about how we can use our campus as a living and breathing space for practically applying these concepts. 

The combination of these themes, collectively and expansively over time, supports our efforts to empower students to become environmental stewards. As our mission states, we seek to change the world for the good, and there is no better way than to empower our youngest learners with the knowledge, skills, and understanding to make a difference. 

How is sustainability integrated into the Riverdale learning experience as a whole?

One of the things that we notice, especially as our curriculum spirals back to specific concepts and themes with increasing complexity over time, is that learning is extending in all directions. We often hear from students when they make a connection between something they learned in school with something they experienced or explored with their families outside of school. At the same time, when a rich contextual framework such as environmental stewardship is at the core of our work, we often have students who enter into units of study or projects with a tremendous amount of prior knowledge that enriches the learning of an entire class. For us, seeing learning extend across the home-school divide in both directions is truly a joy to behold.

What are our plans for continuing to grow and develop these initiatives in the future?

One of our goals for Lower School is to be known as an exemplar within the field of elementary environmental education. The fact that we are a New York City school that lies in the unique watershed of a Special Natural Area District is truly one-of-a-kind. We are taking advantage of this incredible opportunity and using the remarkable resources available to develop learning experiences and a curriculum that leverages these elements. 

I also have the desire for Riverdale to serve as a hub for thought leaders within the fields of conservation, sustainability, and stewardship. There are many organizations that have educationally focused arms of their work, and I think Riverdale could be a positive force that brings like-minded individuals together to share best practices and consider mutually beneficial ways to forge meaningful projects and partnerships. These connections could also potentially create future pathways, especially for high school students through internships or young alumni seeking work opportunities, who may have already had direct contact or experiences with some of the organizations during their time at Riverdale.