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Everyday sustainability in early childhood education

The early years curriculum requires us to incorporate sustainability into early childhood education. Authors Sally Sneddon and Anne Pettit show how this role is a natural and valuable fit in early childhood settings, with benefits all round.
Sustainability in Early Childhood

Understanding sustainability in early childhood

Early childhood is a time of discovery and wonder, as children begin exploring the world and the opportunities it might offer. Children depend on adults to give them the best start in life and to make their world the best it can be. Incorporating sustainability in early childhood settings is a critical part of this time.

Through our everyday lives, we all have an impact on environmental, social and economic conditions of our world. These are the foundations for sustainability that together must support nature and people to thrive – today and into the future.

When these conditions are out of balance, the effects on our local environment and/or community, or others around the world are clear. They include extreme weather events, increasing costs of living, food and water shortages, and conflict between cultures and countries.

Achieving sustainability involves protecting the natural resources we all rely on, and caring for people and all other species. Because this relates to so many parts of our lives and to children’s learning, development and wellbeing, it’s easy to take action for sustainability every day.

Taking action for sustainability

To embed sustainability, it’s helpful to keep in mind two approaches that become ‘just the way we do things’. One is to tread lightly with our environmental footprint. The other is to reach out to others with our social handprint.

Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings (Sneddon and Pettit 2024) uses the footprint and handprint to explore 10 interconnected aspects of sustainability:

  • nature and biodiversity
  • water
  • energy
  • air and transport
  • waste
  • children’s wellbeing
  • Australia’s First Nations cultures and perspectives
  • diversity and inclusion
  • community and partnerships

For adults and children, all of these aspects build knowledge, prompt ideas and clearly guide our actions to make a positive difference.

Sustainability in Action in Early Childhood Settings Foot print and handprint

Demonstrating EYLF and NQS outcomes through embedding sustainability in early childhood settings

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia V2.0 (EYLF) (AGDE 2022) asks that we provide greater consideration and experiences for children related to sustainability. Learning from First Nations cultures and perspectives, and valuing partnerships, are closely related to sustainability too. These all align with the 2023 updates to the National Quality Framework (ACECQA 2023).

The frameworks have direct connections to daily actions that reduce our ecological footprint and increase our social handprint.

Educators in Aotearoa New Zealand will see similar parallels with implementing Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa – Early childhood curriculum (Ministry of Education 2017).

In Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings we show how our activities and actions for sustainability connect to the EYLF and NQS.

Some examples include:

  • learning from and building relationships with First Nations people to grow children’s knowledge, understanding and skills
  • providing toys, books, dress-ups, posters and artwork that signal we welcome diversity and that foster children’s developing sense of identity
  • caring for nature and developing habits that conserve resources such as water and energy, and that children can transfer to their homes and families
  • offering gardening activities that help children build fine and gross motor skills, learn about nutrition and contribute to their world
  • supporting children to build agency and lead actions like switching off lights, sorting recycling and participating in the local community.

Approaching each day with intentionality provides endless opportunities to notice, support and reflect on every child’s education for sustainability. It also provides evidence for documenting their development and our centre’s sustainability practices.

Sustainability resources for Early Childhood Settings

Resourcing sustainability in early childhood education

Integrating new aspects of curriculum or new resources can feel daunting. Yet supports for sustainability education are all around us.

Look within your setting and identify knowledge, skills and interests across the staff team. What can you offer? Can you integrate more of your own passions, such as a love for nature or skills in repairing things? And what items or services do you already have to support sustainability actions? Can your setting make better use of garden beds, book collections or recycling services, for example? From here, plan daily activities and set up routines, teams or projects that put sustainability into practice.

Your local community is likely to be a treasure trove of information, skills, experiences and resources. Who can provide insights or activities about local environments and sustainability? What items can be donated, borrowed or sourced locally? You might start with family members, Traditional Custodians and First Nations businesses and enterprises, libraries, community centres, local councils and environment groups.

Everyday items are often the best resources to support sustainability in early childhood. These might be donated dress-ups that encourage role play and self-expression, or old pots and pans for outdoor play.

We can draw on approaches to pedagogy and curriculum outlined in the EYLF, such as intentional teaching and reflective practice. These and others help us all continue to learn and develop in our profession.

In conclusion

We finish with a few questions to reflect and act on as you contribute to the world that today’s children are inheriting.

  • As I go about my day, where can I do more to benefit sustainability?
  • Am I being a positive role model to children through my actions, language and attitudes to sustainability?
  • What are some gaps in my knowledge about sustainability and how can I find out more?

Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings expands on the information and suggestions here for embedding sustainability. It is a valuable resource and helpful companion for educators and others in all types of early years settings.

References

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority [ACECQA] (2023) Guide to the National Quality Framework. Darlinghurst, NSW: ACECQA.

Australian Government Department of Education [AGDE] (2022) Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia V2.0. Australian Government Department of Education for the Ministerial Council.

Ministry of Education, New Zealand (2017) Te Whāriki: He whāriki mātauranga mō ngā mokopuna o Aotearoa – Early childhood curriculum. Wellington: Ministry of Education.

Sneddon, S and Pettit, A (2024) Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings: Incorporating sustainability in early learning, development and wellbeing (2nd edn). Melbourne, VIC: Teaching Solutions.

About the authors

Sally Sneddon's career has taken her across Australia, working with a range of organisations to lead environmental education activities, sustainability programs, nature conservation projects, community development outcomes and action on climate change. This book came about from her role as manager of the Little Green Steps program in Western Australia. In this hands-on program, Sally worked in early childhood settings with early years professionals, community-based organisations, local governments and agencies to support staff and involve children in everyday actions for sustainability.

Anne Pettit has a background in science and is a qualified and experienced home sustainability assessor and sustainable living educator for all ages from early years to seniors. Pursuing her interests in science, nature, gardening, waste, creativity, literacy and the arts, she has a breadth of experience working in and with small business, local government and not-for-profits, developing programs and materials and delivering engaging sessions that explore and share ideas and activities, with sustainability and its many connections at heart.

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