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Top tips for promoting sustainability in early childhood education

Inspire children in your early childhood setting to become active citizens with these sustainability activities with values emphasised in Te Whāriki.
Promoting Sustainability

Due to human activity, our planet is undergoing profound transformations. Populations globally are already impacted by climate change. Sustainability is an issue which younger generations will inherit.

Education’s role in preparing children to engage with environmental issues is increasingly recognised. Documents such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) solidify the link between education and sustainability. According to the convention, a key outcome of a child’s education should be ‘the development of respect for the natural environment’ (Article 29). This is echoed in Te Whāriki.

By inspiring a sense of environmental stewardship in young learners, educators can contribute significantly to climate action. This might sound daunting, however, this blog contains plenty of resources to help you explore sustainability with your setting. With advice from expert educators, spark discussion and help children achieve key learning outcomes at the same time!

What do we mean by sustainability in early childhood education and care?

The phrase ‘sustainability’ is often used in discussions about climate change but what does it mean and how can educators implement it in their setting?

In Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings, authors Sally Sneddon and Anne Pettit define ‘sustainability’ as:

‘The quest for a sustainable society; one that can persist over generations without destroying the social and life-supporting systems that current and future generations of humans – and all other species on Earth – depend on’ (Department of the Environment and Heritage 2005, p 27).

Their book contains helpful diagrams, such as this one which explains the intertwined foundations of sustainability.

The role of early childhood educators in promoting sustainability

Early childhood educators specifically play a vital role in encouraging children and families to respect the natural world (Aitken, Hunt, Roy and Sajfar 2016). By making sustainable choices in their own lives and connecting children with the environment, early years educators can inspire children to become active citizens (Sneddon and Pettit 2024) (ACECQA 2023).

While early learners are encouraged to play outside, this alone doesn’t equate to effective sustainability education (Davis and Elliott, 2024). Davis and Elliott feel that we must do more to explain the cost human activity is having on our planet. In their opinion, teaching children about the relational nature between humans and natural resources empowers them. Using this framework, children are not just learning about but can act for the environment.

In Sustainability Action in Early Childhood Settings, Sneddon and Pettit use the model ‘Environmental Footprint, Social Handprint’. This teaches children about human impact on the planet and considers perspectives, such as ancestral knowledges.

Sustainable activities for your setting

Incorporating natural materials

In Aotearoa New Zealand, Te Whāriki stipulates that early childhood educators should connect children with the natural environment. Furthermore, it encourages educators to give children opportunities to play with natural materials.

Research highlights the compelling potential benefits of outdoor learning in early childhood education. The positive impacts of outdoor exploration include:

  • encouraging physical activity
  • multisensory experiences
  • it drives social interaction
  • relaxation
  • opportunities for young children to take risks
  • encourages respect and care for the natural environment
  • fosters an awareness and appreciation of the natural world.

(Aitken, Hunt, Roy & Sajfar, 2016)

One study found that a nature-based playground inspired richer language use in children compared to the non-nature-based playground (Prins, van der Wilt, van Santen, van der Veen & Hovinga 2023). Other research indicates that teachers require support in developing the required competences to implement outdoor learning (Kiviranta, Lindfors, Rönkkö, Luukka, 2024). 

Creating Wonder offers a wealth of creative ideas for integrating natural materials into play and learning environments. Inspiring suggestions such as the ones listed below provide endless possibilities for engaging and enriching experiences:

  • pinecone mobiles
  • vases for spring flowers made from recycled jars
  • rugs made from fabric remnants
  • creative weavings using found treasures from nature walks
  • toy bassinets or pull-along cars from recycled boxes
  • teacups and teapots from op shops create interest.

Growing plants

Planting things as a group is a great way to explore the function of plants and conditions required for growth. This could be a long-term project, with children charting the growth of different types of plants and comparing them. This helps children achieve EYLF Outcome 2 by helping them to develop their knowledge of natural environments. Gardening is also an opportunity to teach children about keeping safe around bees, ants, spiders or reptiles. Teaching children about these creatures can encourage early learners to respect them rather than fear them (Sneddon and Pettit 2024).

Collages

The authors of Creating Wonder suggest collage as a fun activity to teach children about recycled materials. Children can get involved by identifying sources of recycled remnants of paper and then collecting and sharing these reclaimed resources. Educators can then discuss the positive impact recycling materials can have on the environment, like saving trees.

The EYLF recommends that educators ‘embed sustainability in daily routines and practices’. Using recycled materials in art projects is an easy way to incorporate this philosophy into your teaching practice.

Recycling band

Learn about our Green Earth – Book 2 presents creative activities for children using recycled materials. For example, using found materials like tin cans, used cardboard boxes, dried beans and plastic containers to make percussion instruments. Children can play along to a song about recycling. This will encourage them to develop their musical skills and spark conversations about recycling.                

Final thoughts on sustainability

Research indicates that outdoor play has great benefits for children, an idea reinforced by Te Whāriki. Early childhood educators play a crucial role in fostering a sense of environmental stewardship in young learners. By teaching sustainability, educators can empower children to become active citizens who understand how social, economic, and environmental factors interconnect.

To explore the topic of sustainability in greater depth, why not check out the fabulous resources below.

References

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. (2023). Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) Sustainability: Principles Information Sheet.

Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority. (2023). Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) 2022 V2.0

Houghton, A. (Ed.). (2021). Intentional Teaching: Key Approaches for Educators. [Google Books version]. 

Kiviranta, L., Lindfors, E., Rönkkö, M. L., & Luukka, E. (2024). Outdoor learning in early childhood education: exploring benefits and challenges. Educational Research, 66(1), 102–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/00131881.2023.2285762

Ministry of Education. (2017). Te Whāriki: Early Childhood Curriculum.

Prins, J., van der Wilt, F., van Santen, S., van der Veen, C., & Hovinga, D. (2023). The importance of play in natural environments for children’s language development: an explorative study in early childhood education. International Journal of Early Years Education, 31(2), 450–466. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2022.2144147

UNESCO. (2023). UNESCO at COP28: Making education a long-term solution to the climate crisis.

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