When Georgina Ardalan looked out at her preschool class this year, she started to see a COVID-era pattern many have missed: an explosion of extra plastic wrappers. School lunches and breakfasts now included individually wrapped everything, from sandwiches to utensils.

“I couldn’t throw all this plastic away,” Ardalan said. 

So she didn’t. Along with two other preschool classes at J.O. Wilson Elementary in northeast Washington, Ardalan and her students started on a monthslong project to create “eco-bricks” — used plastic containers filled to bursting with soft, nonrecyclable plastics. In this case, the eco-bricks started as empty tennis ball cans, courtesy of DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation tennis program. As of June 4, the cans — along with hundreds of plastic grocery bags, food wrappers, and other plastics — have gained a new life as a bench at Sherwood Recreation Center.

The Saturday bench-building event, dubbed a Celebration of Learning, capped off six months of work by teachers and students alike; Ardalan and fellow PreK teachers Elizabeth Wyrsch-Ba and Kristen Gnau introduced the idea to their classes in December, and students started stuffing the eco-bricks in January. The 3- and 4-year-olds stuffed bricks at school, and they stuffed bricks at home; one student said she invited friends over to her house to help make the bricks and play with them. The whole school contributed collected plastic to support the project.

The final bench included more than 130 eco-bricks, and the project kept more than 60 pounds of plastic from being thrown immediately into landfills. “Our classroom was just like a huge eco-brick factory,” Ardalan said. Students used the bricks in all kinds of ways, she said, from pretending they were baby bottles for dolls to using them as hockey sticks outside. 

“The kids were really interested in bricks because we studied buildings,” Wyrsch-Ba said. Other lessons in the regular curriculum integrated nicely with the eco-brick project. “We did [a unit on] ‘reduce, reuse, recycle,’ and then exercise, which was a nice connection also to tennis.”

Early in the year, the students were inspired by the kids’ book “The Adventures of Gary and Harry: A Tale of Two Turtles,” in which one of the main characters chokes on a plastic bag, thinking it’s a jellyfish. Ardalan’s classroom features a live feed of marine life from an underwater webcam, as well as a living, breathing pet turtle named Buddy. Asked why they had to keep plastic out of the ocean, one student said emphatically: “All the fish will get choked!” 

This isn’t the first environmental project from J.O. Wilson’s preschool classes — in 2017, Wyrsch-Ba’s class made a map of trees around the school, noticed that one had been cut down, and successfully petitioned to have a new one planted in its place. That project was part of an initiative called “Children Are Citizens,” which launched in 2014. The initiative, which has involved dozens of classrooms across DC public, private, and charter schools, focuses on professional development for elementary school teachers and curriculum aimed at involving kids in civic life using students’ own curiosity as a guide.

“Three- and 4- and 5-year-olds can actually be citizens, and they can do action in the world and make the world a better place,” said Jim Reese, one of the Children Are Citizen’s creators and director of the Professional Development Collaborative at Washington International School. 

In years past, the program has been funded by grants, but this year, most of that money has dried up. Reese is working on more grant applications, but for now, some teachers who were involved before, like these three at J.O. Wilson, have been implementing the projects without any extra funding. “The three teachers here have kept it alive,” Reese said. The most time-consuming part, Ardalan said, was not the extra lesson planning or the coordination with outside helpers like DPR’s tennis director — it was the creation of a final photo-filled book that records the process from start to finish.

“This idea of documentation is really important,” Reese said. Especially for kids as young as 3, it’s vital to provide visual cues to help them remember the project’s steps. “What we’re doing here is learning those ways of recognizing things, and of recalling things, which is really challenging for a young child.”

Even while skills like memory are still forming, Reese and the J.O. Wilson teachers believe kids’ curiosity, concern about fairness, and passion for their world mean we shouldn’t overlook their abilities to contribute to civic life — not just as future citizens, but as present ones, too. “At this young age, that’s when they really get emotional attachment to things,” Wyrsch-Ba said. “20 years from now, they’re going to be thinking about Gary and Harry and the turtles, and they’re really going to be thinking about how much they worried about those animals. So I think that it won’t be just scientific — they’ll feel the connection.”

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