Education for sustainability in practice

If we all take the time to care for our environment, we will make a difference together. DR SUE ELLIOTT and Australia-Aotearoa Alliance for Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (The Alliance) share how to implement sustainable ways into early learning services, from workshops to wiser consumption and what we should consider when purchasing goods. This is part two of the Education for sustainability blog, which outlines the key concepts, the research and what changes we can make to the environment in early childhood settings through sustainable practice.

Applying sustainable ways in your practice?

Australia is unique in having professional organisations dedicated to providing education for sustainability in the early childhood years. These organisations or networks provide professional learning, support early childhood educators in practical ways, promote research and innovation, liaise with peak bodies, and much more. Environmental Education in Early Childhood (EEEC) was the first Australian network after it was established in Victoria in 1992. Other state-based organisations followed, and these now form an Australia-wide Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) alliance. Currently, there are several important goals the alliance is working towards. These include embedding education for sustainability more strongly in the National Quality Standard (NQS) and Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) and underpinning nature play program pedagogies with sustainability principles and practices. This offers a sound basis to progress the UNESCO (2016) Sustainable Development Goals. Visit the website:

Practice 1: Sustainability advocacy and agency in practice with children by Lisa Sonter, Queensland Early Childhood Sustainability Network (QECSN)

‘The world should not be simplified, but rather celebrated by adults and children in all its complex beauty,’ – Louise Boyd Caldwell.

QECSN’s Sustainability in Practice Awards champion advocacy and children as change agents. Sharing stories about children’s thinking of complex issues gives children a voice as active and responsive citizens. Visit the website:

Sustainability in Practice Award stories where children are active and responsive citizens:  

Four-year-old Mackenzie is interested in sustainability, which inspired her educators and peers. She expressed her connection to her world through everyday actions such as drawing, gardening and sharing photos of composting at home. Her drawings were mainly of environmental topics, including butterflies, the sun, turtle eggs and campfires. Aspley East Kindergarten educators scaffolded Mackenzie and her peers’ understandings of the environment through discussions about everyday events such as bushfires and floods around the world, and saving birds and koalas.

Willmore Kindergarten’s investigation into water saving came from watching a cappella version of the song Africa by Toto, and investigating the drought in Cape Town, South Africa. The children wondered how they could help. After researching how access to water was difficult for African families, they contacted a kindergarten in Cape Town and explored ways to transport water from Australia. Shortly afterwards, the drought in Queensland took hold, so the children investigated local measures. They decided to make posters about water saving and distributed these to local businesses.

The early childhood educators in these stories capitalised opportunities to make children’s active citizenship visible and optimised young children’s agency to ‘make contributions that create better conditions for both present and future childhoods,’ (Davis, 2014, p. 26).

Practice 2: Sustainability for Reconciliation by Jennifer Pearson, Little Green Steps WA (LGS WA)

Western Australia has a strong Noongar culture, and early years’ educators have always looked for information and resources to help them understand this deep culture, and sensitively include it in their programs. The LGS WA program manager, Megan Mentz, developed a range of workshops in close association with Leonard Thorn, a Noongar educator. The workshops have brought an Indigenous lens to understanding global sustainability. Visit the website:

These professional learning workshops weave together Indigenous knowledge, culture and sustainability. The initial workshop was entitled ‘Cultural and Social Diversity in the Early Years:

Learning about Noongar cultures for early years professionals’. This workshop included learning about how culture and identity can affect our actions, values and cultural conversations and explored aspects and activities that can make Noongar cultural connections real. Also included were ways to make early years’ services socially-diverse and culturally-appropriate and build relationships with children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and multicultural families.

Further, as part of a NAIDOC Week grant, Megan and Leonard developed and trialed a specific educational workshop for early years’ educators. For many educators selecting hands-on activities and using associated language to help children learn and appreciate the culture and technologies of Noongar groups has been challenging. Megan and Leonard’s workshop enabled them to learn the ways Noongar men and women sustainably provided for their families.

It was titled ‘Noongar Yarning and Cultural activities’ and explored aspects of Noongar culture through hands-on activities, making the connections real for children in the early years. The activities promoted investigation of traditional means in fishing and food preparation; the use of resources on Country during the Noongar six seasons; totems and cultural identity; means of entertainment; and, Noongar words for body parts, simple tools and animals. There were many ideas shared about embedding Noongar cultures into children’s learning and routines, plus a list of curriculum linked resources offered for further exploration. Many of the activities aligned with early years’ settings and experiences.

Practice 3: Clean up the beach: A Story of Change – NSW Early Childhood Environmental Education Network (NSW ECEEN) SPROuts Practice Award by Julie Gaul

Children, educators, and families were excited to start regular visits to their local beach as part of the nature program. It was a surprise for everyone when they found a catchment of rubbish from the harbour as they arrived at the beach. The state of the beach was confronting for the children and educators. The children connected with a stretch of the beach as their ‘place’ and insisted on cleaning it. The educators, inspired by the children’s decisiveness, consulted with the families and together they embraced the issue. The children became agents of transformation, and a story of change unfolded. Visit the website:

The children put forward many solutions to address the polluted beach, these included:

  • Cleaning the beach.
  • Making signs stating people need to take care of their rubbish.
  • Writing to the council to ask it to clean the beach more often.
  • Making art works with rubbish to show how bad it is for animals.
  • Designing bins that encourage usage and prevent animals from accessing rubbish.

The more the children, educators, and families looked for solutions, the more their knowledge of ocean pollution and life systems grew, along with their motivation to take up sustainable habits.

Families reported the children took home the message that the environment needed to be cared for and there were consequences if no action was taken. Families often participated in ‘clean-up’ on the weekends, and now the local council regularly cleans the beach after the children shared their concerns for the beach and sea life with the local newspaper. The council built on the momentum of the children’s project with a program called Harbour Care to promote caring for the environment.

Educators researched and found resources including Plastinography—an interactive website, and the advocacy organisations Take 3 for the Sea, Taronga Blue, and Responsible Cafés. The project inspired other educators in the centre to adopted more sustainable practices such as reducing single-use plastics by reusing coffee cups, drink bottles, and bags. The entire centre embarked on planning to reduce plastic usage and the consumption of disposable items. Soft plastic waste will now be collected and taken to the local supermarket for recycling. Also, the children and families created artwork for the Oceans are in Trouble exhibition, which travelled to local schools and library to promote sustainability to the wider community.

Practice 4: Wiser consumption and why it is essential by Kaarin Wilkinson and Jillian King from Early Education for Sustainability South Australia Inc. (EESSA)

A common phrase is ‘when you love nature, nature loves you back’… spend a minute and think about this phrase with your staff, families and children. Consume less, waste less, and … enjoy life more!

‘We use too much, too much of it is toxic and we don’t share it very well, but that’s not the way things have to be. Together, we can build a society based on better not more, sharing not selfishness, community not division,’ –Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff (2007). These sentiments are easily implemented in early childhood settings. Visit the website:

As influential economist E. F. Schumacker stated, `The infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility.’ In support, Goal 12 of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals is: Sustainable consumption and production (UNESCO, 2016). This reminds us to consume wisely in the interests of global sustainability.

One of the many things we have the wrong way around is our purchasing. Our grandparents would buy a product once and use it over and over again, whereas we use a product once and throw it away then buy it over and over again. This week spend a minute thinking about your early childhood services’ consumption and what changes can be made to support the reduction of stuff. For example, excessive use of single-use plastic items is polluting our oceans, damaging marine life and threatening human health. So, reduce what you use and avoid plastic, especially single-use plastic items. Also, when purchasing materials or resources, be informed and understand what you are purchasing, what it is made of, where it came from, how long it might last and how it might be disposed. This way you can close the production-consumption-disposal loop.

Create opportunities with children to discuss what things are made of and where they come from? What is a natural product and what is human-made? What happens to our stuff when we no longer need it? Where does it go? Are our food and other items produced locally? Invite children to identify anything plastic and discuss alternative natural products. Be aware of the plastics we take for granted, such as wrappings on the things we buy. Giving mindful attention to this can help us change old habits and become wiser in our consumption.

Some useful links about being wise consumers:



  • 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.
  • Leonard, A. (2007). The Story of Stuff. Retrieved from

ECA Recommends

Early childhood environmental education: Making it mainstream
By Julie Davis and Sue Elliott

This resource aims to make environmental education an integral part of early childhood and explore how to implement environmental education in a holistic, empowering and integrated way. Purchase a copy on the ECA Shop.

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.

5 thoughts on “Education for sustainability in practice”

    Muireann Ranta says:

    Can you reccomend any stories to read with young children to support their ESD learning ?
    Many thanks

    Early Childhood Australia says:

    Hi Muireann, Thank you for the comment. We have multiple environment and sustainability resources on the ECA Shop, visit our website here:

    Jackie Juckes says:

    Hi Sue
    We having been exploring bees with the children and how to make our world a better place
    Can u advise where we can go with this, in reading and information m. It’s such a large area, however the chn are showing interest in what’s in their world

    Robbie says:

    Thanks for revisitng this article – such an important message and very practical ideas to implement sustainable practices in ECE.
    The top two useful links are outdated/expired. I did however find this one which might be similar to the first link:

    Early Childhood Australia says:

    Thank you Robbie!

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