Education for sustainability

DR SUE ELLIOTT explains sustainability, the key concepts, the research and what changes we can make to the environment in early childhood settings through sustainable practice. This piece is an extension of the ECA e-newsletter, ‘Spend a minute … on education for sustainability with guest author Dr Sue Elliott’. Education for sustainability is about change, change in the ways all species co-habit with the Earth. Change can be difficult, but as early childhood educators the best interests of children, both their current options and their futures, are foremost in our daily roles. As educators we need to understand why change is urgently needed and how we can advocate and act for sustainable futures for all.

What do we mean by sustainability?

The concept of sustainability is complex and often misunderstood. Is it simply about maintaining or keeping something going such as a bank balance? Is it simply about maintaining or keeping something going such as a bank balance? In the face of global climate change the imperative is to understand the various dimensions of sustainability: economic, natural, social and political. Also, working towards sustainability is about a restorative and generative process for the Earth’s systems and everyone can participate. Keeping things going as usual is no longer an option, if we value children’s present options and long-term futures.

Further sustainability is commonly interpreted as being about ‘green issues’ such as deforestation, habitat loss and pollution that are highly visible and directly impact the environment. However, since The Brundtland Report: Our Common Future (WCED, 1987) when the term sustainability was recognised internationally, there has been a gradual shift to more complex understandings of what it means to be globally sustainable. The UNESCO (2010) depiction of sustainability best illustrates this complexity and comprises four dimensions: economic, natural, social and political. The dimensions are interconnected in many ways and it is a failure to recognise these interconnections that has led to many global issues. For example, water is essential to all life and typically considered a natural resource, yet there are political, economic and social dimensions which limit or prevent access for all species, human as well as others. The recent mass fish kills in the Murray Darling Basin in regional Australia, offer a compelling example of what can occur when all dimensions are not considered in sustainable decision-making processes.

Successive international reports (IPCC, 2018) have highlighted the challenges of climate change. A two degree Celsius increase in mean global temperature is now considered a significant threshold that is within reach. It has been predicted that beyond this threshold current efforts to address global sustainability will have limited restorative effect and disruptions will occur across all social, economic and environmental systems. There is an urgency to act that has never before been experienced by human populations. Further, as educators, we understand that young children are most at risk in the face of global climate change, for example in the critical early years, food or water security, disease and extreme weather may have life-long impacts (Currie & Deschenes, 2016).  Intergenerational equity is paramount.

Early Childhood Education for Sustainability

Education for sustainability (EfS) is about transformative change at many levels—our thinking, our ways of being and our ways of acting to regenerate the Earth. Many educators readily engage in the tangible aspects of EfS in early childhood services, such as establishing compost bins, recycling and growing produce. But, there are deeper layers of meanings about thinking and being that can be explored with children through our daily pedagogical practices.

Engaging in transformative change at all levels requires critical reflection by children and educators alike. How can we rethink our worldviews about the species we share the planet’s resources with and be more equitable? Linking to the previous example of fish kills in the Murray Darling Basin, is the water in the river system just there for human use, or is it there for many fish, frog and plant species too? How can we achieve an ethical and responsive sharing of resources, not pre-empted by human needs only?  There is a unique role for educators and children to engage in critical eco-pedagogies as described by McLaren (2017). Pedagogies informed by an ethical stance about relationships between humans and all the species that share the planet, recognise how human impacts are harming the planet and are derived from ecocentric rather than anthropocentric worldviews. This is not about over burdening children, but asking questions so that different ways of thinking and being can be discussed and critiqued. Reflective discussions per se are useful, but must lead to advocacy and civic action for change and there are significant roles for educators in modelling and facilitating action with children, families and communities. Examples are offered by Ji and Stuhmcke (2014), Young and Elliott (2014) and O’Brien et al (2019), beyond these one can look to the local sustainability practitioner initiatives across the various Australian early childhood EfS networks and affiliates.  

  • Environmental Education in Early Childhood (EEEC Vic. Inc.)
    Visit the website:
  • Queensland Early Childhood Sustainability Network (QECSN)
    Visit the website:
  • NSW Early Childhood Environmental Education Network (NSW ECEEN)
    Visit the website:

Rethinking our theoretical frames

Engaging in pedagogical change should be underpinned by rethinking the theoretical frames that inform our daily roles with children. Currently, socio-cultural theories derived from anthropocentric or human-centred perspectives predominate and are evident in policy documents, such as the EYLF (DEEWR, 2009) and NQS (ACECQA, 2018). While educators tend to be eclectic over time, gathering theoretical frames and curriculum approaches to inform their work, there are some emerging contemporary ideas that might provoke deeper shifts towards enacting global sustainability with children. 

  1. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 1989) is recognised and implemented across the early childhood education field. However, Davis (2014) has proposed a revisioning of children’s rights that includes foundational rights such as protection, but adds agentic participation, collective, intergenerational and ecocentric rights. As educators we must broaden and facilitate children’s rights and capabilities to participate in working towards their sustainable futures— intergenerational equities are at stake.
  2. Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory (1979) is another pervasive anthropocentric frame in early childhood education. Elliott and Davis (2018a) have questioned its relevance in current dire global contexts and outline new ways of depicting Bronfenbrenner’s circular model aligned with sustainability. The proposed models identify the child not only as part of socio-cultural systems from micro to exo, but also the earth’s biosystems. The child’s capacities for action across biosystems and the likely negative impacts of increasingly unstable biosystems on the child are recognised. Fundamentally, socio-cultural systems cannot be viewed in isolation from the biosystems we inhabit and EfS practice implications must be explored by practitioners (Elliott & Davis, 2018a).
  3. Post humanist theorising has recently come to the fore in early childhood education (Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Taylor, 2013). Post-humanism again challenges an anthropocentric socio-cultural stance and questions human-nature binaries embedded in everyday language and thinking. Humans and nature share a common world and ethically informed relationships are much needed. Nature is not simply a human resource; note the inherent rights of nature have been legally enshrined in some countries. We now know there are global repercussions for all species, including fish! Post humanism also encompasses a shift towards intra-active pedagogies where natural materials we incorporate in programs are viewed as agentic (Lenz Taguchi, 2010). Put simply, both the child drawing with a stick in dirt and the stick are agentic in a dynamic intra-action—something to ponder!

 UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals (2017)

A useful internationally-ratified guiding document for EfS is UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals (2017). There are 17 goals across a broad range of areas, including energy, water, health, industry, cities and education. The goals reflect the complexities of sustainable development and its multiple dimensions. There are compelling intersections between issues such as rights, environment and poverty. None can be addressed in isolation or ignored when developed countries are impacting the Earth significantly more than developing countries. The goals inform a globally transformative agenda to be achieved by 2030.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2017) follow on from previous initiatives such as the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UN DESD, 2004-2014). Education has long been recognised as the vehicle for transformative change by educators and also, in successive international policy initiatives to address sustainability (Sterling, 2001). During the UN DESD recognition of the fundamental role of early childhood education increased, however in my experience many early childhood practitioners were unaware of the UN DESD (Elliott & Davis, 2018b). The final report summarising the achievements of the UN DESD (UNESCO, 2014) stated:

Young children are both current and future citizens with already existing capabilities to shape sustainable societies. Investments to build their awareness, values, knowledge and capacity for sustainable development will serve to set the world on more sustainable pathways now and into the future (p. 78).

At this critical time, in the Anthropocene, the geological epoch defined by negative human impacts on the Earth’s systems (Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill, 2007), the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNESCO, 2017) offer a hopeful road map. This road map reinforces that EfS is not an optional extra in early childhood programs, but must be integral akin to the politically debated cross-curriculum priority of sustainability in the Australian Curriculum (ACARA, 2018). Current early childhood policy documents offer some support, however in light of the rethinking elaborated in this blog there is scope for much stronger direction. Lastly, early childhood educators should be conversant with all the UN SDG’s goal, but specifically with Goal 4: Quality Education and Target 4.7 which states:

By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (UNESCO, 2017, online).

We are all in this together and together we can make change!


  • Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2018). Australian Cross Curriculum Priorities. Retrieved 14 April 2018 from
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Currie, J., & Deschenes, O. (2016). Children and climate change: Introducing the issue. The Future of Children, 26(1), 3–9.
  • Davis, J. (2014). Examining early childhood education through the lens of education for sustainability: Revisioning rights. In J. Davis & S. Elliott (Eds.) Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: International Perspectives and Provocations (pp. 21-37). London: Routledge.
  • Elliott, S., & Davis, J. (2018a). Challenging taken-for-granted ideas in early childhood education: A critique of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory in the age of post-humanism (online). In A. Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles, K. Malone & E. Barrett-Hacking (Eds.) Research Handbook on Childhoodnature: Assemblages of Childhood and Nature Research. London: Springer International Handbooks of Education.
  • Elliott, S., & Davis, J. (2018b). Moving Forward from the Margins: Education for Sustainability in Australian Early Childhood Contexts (pp. 163-178). In G. Reis & J. Scott (Eds.) International Perspectives on the Theory and Practice of Environmental Education: A Reader. Springer Nature.
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC]. (2018). Global Warming of 1.5°C. Retrieved from
  • Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: introducing an intra-active pedagogy. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
  • McLaren, P. (2015). Pedagogy of insurrection: From resurrection to revolution. New York, NY: Peter Lang.
  • Ji, O., & Stuhmcke, S. (2014). The project approach for early childhood education for sustainability: Exemplars from Korea and Australia. In J. Davis and S. Elliott (eds), Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: International Perspectives and Provocations (pp. 158–79). London: Routledge.
  • Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio ol. 36(8), 614-621.
  • O’Brien, K., Tickle, T., Thompson, A., & Elliott, S. (2019). Quirindi Preschool leading community change: Rethinking, reducing, re-using and recycling. Everychild, 24(4), 30-31.
  • Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainable education: Re-visioning learning and change. Devon, UK: Green Books.
  • Taylor, A. (2013). Reconfiguring the natures of childhood. London: Routledge.
  • UNESCO. (2017). Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from
  • UNESCO. (2010). Four Dimensions of Sustainable Development. Retrieved from
  • UNESCO. (2014). Shaping the future we want: UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-2014) Final Report. Paris: UNESCO.
  • UNICEF. (1989). United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Retrieved from
  • World Commission on Environment & Development (WCED) .(1987). The Brundtland report: Our common future. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Young, T., & Elliott, S. (2014). Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability. Deakin West, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.


ECA’s Research in Practice Series title
Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability
By Tracy Young and Sue Elliott

Education for sustainability involves different ways of thinking about, acting on and relating to sustainability. This publication stimulates critical reflection through research and various perspectives about how we live and how we work with children and families in the interests of long-term survival for the Earth. You can subscribe or purchase your copy here.

Sue Elliott

Dr Sue Elliott is Senior Lecturer and Course Co-ordinator in the School of Education, University of New England. She has been engaged in early childhood education for sustainability and outdoor nature play advocacy and practice for over two decades and is an acknowledged author in the early childhood field.

6 thoughts on “Education for sustainability”

    Lindi Bloch says:

    What a fantastic read – thank you for sharing and broadening my knowledge of sustainability as an ECT .
    Grateful for you sharing and creating think tanks , food for thought, I truly believe we can take this on board and deepen the understanding and awareness of young children deeper and further than recycling and composting. thank you

    Sue Elliott says:

    Thanks Lindi, pleased the article promoted your thinking about this urgent global issue.
    I look forward to hearing how you take this forward. Regards, Sue

    rita says:

    very helpful information in regards to sustainability. this helps me to teach children more about sustainability and put into practice daily. I make use of the group time with children to talk about sustainability and involve them in giving their views.

    Vinita says:

    This really helps to think in depth about sustainability , reflect and improvise ways to sustain our environment.
    As an educator I have started using more natural materials and resources for activities and crafts with the children.

    Involving children in discussions and unraveling their view on sustainability.

    Planning for sustainability means of engagement in environmental activities that increase your child’s interest and understanding towards nature. Early chilcare centres uses these activities to help your kid get open ended materials. Parents and teachers offer the child the opportunity to explore, to ask, to wonder and grow with each and every experience. These activities can be beneficial in long terms.

    Komal says:

    This is really amazing to know how sustainability effects our lives and how important it is!! As an educator it is my pleasure and responsibility to let children know how can we support and protect mother EARTH and use more natural elements in our daily activities and craft. It is very important and interesting to connect with nature.

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