Living sustainably means living within the capacity of the natural environment to support life and ensuring our current lifestyle has minimal impact on generations to come. Sustainable practices relate not only to the natural environment, but also our society and culture, including aspects such as consumerism and community well-being.
As the need for greater sustainability becomes more apparent globally, so does the importance of embedding sustainability in children’s programs. Through hands-on experiences and relevant educator pedagogies, children can explore and learn about their local contexts and environmental issues. They can develop the creativity and critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions for change, improving the quality of their lives, and those of future generations.
Practicing sustainability empowers children to construct knowledge, explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment and its relationship to their worlds. This lays the foundations for an environmentally responsible adulthood.
Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer from the University of New England, NSW, says ‘early childhood education for sustainability is a transformative and empowering process actively engaged in by children, families and educators who share an ecocentric worldview’ (Elliott, 2014, p.15). An ecocentric worldview is one that embraces all the Earth’s life forms and physical elements, not just humans.
When there is an alignment of philosophies, ethics and beliefs in a service, sustainability becomes the norm and has a positive impact on children’s learning and the wider community.
The Early Years Learning Framework, the Framework for School Age Care and the National Quality Standard promote embedding sustainability in all daily routines and practices. Services often find elements relating to sustainability under Quality Area 3 challenging to meet.
Educators typically focus on sustainable practices and activities for children in the outdoor environment. However, it is important to embed sustainability more broadly in all aspects of service operations. A holistic approach to sustainability is essential, acknowledging the natural, social, political and economic dimensions as defined by UNESCO (2010).
Sue Elliott (2014, p. 52) offers the following questions to get started on a journey of change:
- What practical first step or action priority could we engage in that best reflects the interests and/or strengths of this community?
- How will we decide on the most relevant and achievable action?
- Which stakeholders in our service may have an interest in this action priority?
Other questions for reflection include:
- What strategies do we use to foster children’s capacity to value and respect the broader environment and appreciate the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land?
- How are children involved in the environmentally sustainable practices already existing at the service and in the community?
- What connections have we made within the local indigenous community that support a deeper connection to the land?
- How will we maintain the inspiration and momentum for the journey of change?
Nadine McCrea (2015, p. 64), Associate Professor at University of New England, suggests the following sustainable practices as starting points.
- create edible gardens for sharing and/or cooking produce
- implement an energy saving policy including heating, cooling, lights, appliances
- practise green cleaning
- be active citizens for sustainability in local community projects
- collect natural materials for play ethically, only taking a few and using respectfully
- install a solar hot water system
- reuse and repurposing materials for play
- create a second-hand children’s book or clothing exchange for families
- use forest-friendly paper products
- avoid disposable, single use items
- investigate local indigenous environmental knowledge
- implement a sustainable purchasing policy including local products and minimised packaging
What other possibilities might be relevant to your education and care service?
Educators might consider joining a sustainable education network for ideas to engage in sustainable practices. Current networks include:
- Australian Association for Environmental Education
- Early Childhood Environmental Education Network (NSW)
- Environmental Education in Early Childhood (Victoria)
- Early Education for Sustainability South Australia (SA)
- Queensland Early Childhood Sustainability Network (Qld)
The Early Childhood Environmental Education Network has developed the Eco Smart for Early Childhood – a sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans along with a version designed specifically for family day care educators. Other useful resources include:
- The Earth Charter
- ‘It will be a wasteland if we don’t recycle’– Sustainability and intentional teaching in early childhood; Sustainable Schools Project
- Eco-Resource Kit for Early Childhood Services – UnitingCare Gippsland
- Conversations on School-Community Learning Partnerships for Sustainability (A Guidebook)
- Climbing the little green steps
References and resources
Davis, J. (Ed.) (2015). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability (2nd edn.), Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.
Elliott, S. (2014). Sustainability and the Early Years Learning Framework. Mt Victoria, NSW: Pademelon Press.
McCrea, N. (2015). Leading and management: Early childhood settings – Inspiring people, places and practices. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.
NSW ECEEN (2012). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.
NSW ECEEN (2015). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans Family Day Care revision. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.
UNESCO (2010) Four dimensions of sustainable development. Retrieved 25 September, 2014, fromhttp://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/popups/mod04t01s03.html
Young, T. & Elliott, S. (2014) Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability. Deakin West, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.