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Go green? The earlier the better in these crèches

Every edition we assess an aspect of the French zeitgeist. This month: the trend for ecologically sound childcare, by Jane Hanks

Happy Babies in Caen, Calvados is one of a growing number of crèches, which believes you can never be too young to learn to be green.

It is part of the Léa et Léo group of crèches found all over France which are working towards gaining an Ecolo Crèche Label, awarded when the crèche has shown it has taken significant steps to be more ecological in its practices over a period of several months.

There are 32 full-time places at Happy Babies, which has a staff of 11 to cater for babies of two-and-a-half months up to six years. Linda Prevel is the Director and she is convinced young children can learn very early on how to be green: “When they wash their hands, for example, we explain they must use less water. They help us choose, and put, what goes where in each recycling bin. I also believe it is much better for their health to be in an environment with fewer chemical products.”

The crèche has made changes in several areas. “They all seem like simple things but they take time to assimilate before they become part of daily life,” says Mrs Prevel. “For example, we turn down the heating before we leave in the evening, we turn off unnecessary lights, we use more organic and local food in our menus, we scrutinise the labels on toys before we buy them to make sure they are eco-friendly and we make our own cleaning products. 

“It is also important that the whole team are involved and we are lucky that our staff is very motivated. Their well-being is important too and we offer employees free yoga lessons.”

The Ecolo Crèche label was founded in 2013 by Claire Escriva who worked in ecotoxicology, studying the effects of chemicals and pollutants in industry and who turned her attention to crèches when she had children. 

There are 100 crèches with the label and around 200 others working to earn one, out of 12,000 in France, but spokesperson for Ecolo Crèches, Antoinette Rouverand says numbers are growing: “It is moving slowly but surely. Every day we have more and more interest in our movement. There are many advantages. In some of the crèches there has not been one case of bronchiolitis during the winter which is rare and shows the environment is healthier. There is also less absenteeism from staff due to less illness and better morale because they are working together to make their crèche a better place to be. 

“Children are able to be more creative by finding their own amusements and playing with big cardboard boxes which they love, as well as with ready-made toys. Where possible there is a garden and maybe they can fetch eggs from a henhouse.”

Any crèche can earn the label, be it municipal, private or associative. The staff must decide they want to take part, and then choose one of eight themes to work on and prove that after a year  they have made improvements: “It could be better recycling,” says Mrs Rouverand. “Or a reduction in the use of energy and water,  changes in the food provided with a higher percentage of local and organic products, a reduction in the use of cleaning products with chemicals or the introduction of different types of activity and games, so that less plastic is used and they use home-made playdough instead of buying it. A crèche does not have to be completely “green” to earn the label as we understand it takes time and commitment to make changes.”

Very few parents have the luxury to choose a crèche and have to opt for the one where they can get a place. However, the association has found that parents are always very happy to see that their crèche is working towards the écolo label, or already has it.

The association hopes that parents in crèches which do not have the label will start to persuade staff that they should start working towards one.

The label is also attracting government interest. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot visited an Ecolo Crèche at Aulnay-sous-Bois, Ile-de-France, in March.

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