Sustainability as the norm in early childhood settings

This article was written in the midst of extreme weather events and bushfires that are again reminding Australians that climate change is real; neither politicians, nor early childhood educators can ignore the imperative of sustainability.

As I and others have advocated (Davis, 2010), there is a unique opportunity in early childhood settings to culturally embed ‘thinking, acting and relating’ (Kemmis, 2009) for sustainability as integral to early childhood education. Children, educators and families must be active, empowered and collaborative participants in change towards more sustainable ways of being with the Earth.

While many services have engaged with practices such as establishing compost bins and water tanks, particularly driven by the new National Quality Standards (NQS) including ‘Standard 3.3: The service takes an active role in caring for its environment and contributes to a sustainable future’ (ACECQA, 2013, pp. 99–102), sustainability is more than ticking the boxes on a list of practices. The excerpt below from a case study of two early childhood centres entitled Baby steps for a greener future highlights how many practices became embedded over time as ‘normal’, but more importantly the underlying thinking was changing as educators, children and families were inspired to find more ways to embrace sustainability.

It’s not so much a most significant change, but all the small changes that added up to something significant. It is this cumulative process of change that becomes most significant. Small changes such as clotheslines, water tanks, cloth nappies, water saving buckets under the taps, sustainable transport and energy saving by ‘peeing in the dark’ have been implemented. To some new parents these appear unusual, but are now embedded as part of the centre’s sustainability practices. Now if you ask a staff member what are their environmental practices, they will find it hard to suggest anything because it is just normal daily practice to them and more importantly to the children (Smith, Wheeler, Guevara, Gough & Fein, 2012, p. 113).

Thinking and practising sustainability has the potential to be applied across all quality assurance areas, not just Standard 3.3. The guide Ecosmart for early childhood: A sustainability filter for quality improvement plans (NSW ECEEN, 2012) offers support for services incorporating sustainability as practice and as a core ethic informing the ways we both ‘think and do’ in early childhood settings.

Another approach to promoting sustainability as the norm involves rethinking the notion of ‘continuities’ evident in the early childhood literature (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett & Farmer, 2012; Kennedy, 2006; Touhill, 2012) and reiterated in Belonging, being & becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (DEEWR, 2009). Through a sociocultural lens Kennedy (2006, p. 83) describes continuities as the ‘connections and linkages between and across people and services’. Most often continuities are highlighted in relation to transitions in children’s lives over time and aspects that promote continuities in terms of ongoing relationships with educators, responsive and evolving programs and links with families and communities.

Continuities in early childhood settings support a sense of security pivotal to facing challenges and taking risks and also offer deeper and more meaningful learning opportunities for children and their families. Continuities are also foundational to understandings about sustainability and rethinking continuities to envision what sustainability might mean in an early childhood setting offers a different lens:

  • How do we connect our past and future on the Earth, is there a sense of relationship continuity or discord between humans and the Earth over time?
  • How do we understand the many ecological interrelationships that sustain the Earth and its inhabitants, are they secure, ongoing and most critically, mutually responsive?
  • How do we respond to the current evolving period of significant global climatic transition we are now entering, are we responding in ways that promote continuity at all levels for all species?

It is particularly this last question that should propel all early childhood educators into action, envisioning sustainability in their services. Globally we are currently responding (or not in many cases) to the greatest climatic transition period humans and all other species will perhaps ever experience. We must question how we are working with children to promote the necessary understandings, relationships and sense of agency to respond effectively to significant climatic transitions.

I reflect back to my earlier statement that sustainability is more than a checklist of practices. Sustainability must be envisioned as a critically important continuity within early childhood settings, from pedagogical relationships and strategies, learning experiences and physical contexts to service operation, philosophy statements and ethics. Aligning all of these elements with sustainability offers a clear and consistent message to all service participants that sustainability is the shared ‘norm’ in our service and guides all decision making. By rethinking continuity in this way, there is the possibility for a sense of security about the future and for the children we work with to effectively respond to the predicted challenges and risks of climatic transition over coming decades.

Last, I alert readers to an earlier edition of Every Child focused on transitions in early childhood where the editor (Elliott, 2013) expressed concern about the tragic impacts of floods, storms and fires across three Australian states at that time and the uncertain and challenging transitions faced by many children and their families in dealing with the impacts. I firmly believe that continuity, recast with a sustainability lens in early childhood education and supported by the NQS, offers a positive way forward through increasingly uncertain and challenging global transitions. Sue Elliott University of New England


Arthur, L., Beecher, B., Death, E., Dockett, S. & Farmer, S. (2012). Programming and planning in early childhood settings (5th edn.). Sydney: Cengage. Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA). (2013). Guide to the National Quality Standard. Retrieved from:

Davis J. (Ed.) (2010). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability. Melbourne: Cambridge Press. Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being & becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.

Elliott, A. (2013). Editorial: Continuity of experience and strong relationships. Every Child, 19(1), 2. Kemmis, S. (2009). Action research as a practice-based practice. Educational Action Research, 17(3), 463–474.

Kennedy, A. (2006). Continuity in early childhood education: Building sociocultural connections. In M. Fleer, S. Edwards, M. Hammer, A. Kennedy, A. Ridgway, J. Robbins & L. Surman, Early childhood learning communities: Sociocultural research in practice (pp. 83–94). French’s Forest: Pearson Education Australia.

New South Wales Early Childhood Environmental Education Network (NSW ECEEN). (2012). Ecosmart for early childhood: A sustainability filter for quality improvement plans. Sydney: NSW ECEEN.

Smith, K., Wheeler, L., Guevara, J. R., Gough, A., & Fein, J. (2012). Conversations on school-community learning partnerships for sustainability: A guidebook. Bundoora, Victoria: RMIT University.

Touhill, L. (2012). Continuity of learning. NQS PLP e-Newsletter No. 46. Retrieved from: NQS_PLP_E-Newsletter_No46.pdf.

This article was originally published in Every Child magazine 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.

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