Education for sustainability: Agents of change

In the first of a three part series, Hilary White explains how children's rights are key to integrating sustainability into your practice and how early learning can be the foundation for a healthy world.

Settings have complete freedom to shape their own approach to sustainable development
Settings have complete freedom to shape their own approach to sustainable development

When a theme or topic is given its own acronym, we can be sure that the education sector is starting to take it seriously. Not before time; Education for Sustainability (EfS) has developed a unique identity, and is fast becoming one of the key issues in educational debate.

As a part of this growing interest, research is now focusing on the early years and looking at ways to help even our youngest children become environmentally aware. It is important to understand recent thinking about the purpose of EfS in the early years, and the key issues practitioners need to be aware of in helping children to develop environmental literacy. This includes the importance of creating a ‘sustainability mindset’ and involving all children and staff members in constructing an EfS framework.

What is sustainability in the early years?

Environmental issues are complex, with many of us struggling to understand how we can bring sustainability into both our lives and our early years provision. According to early education researcher Julie Davis, sustainability is a wide-reaching and controversial term with no universally accepted definition. She highlights what she calls the ‘popularised description’ in the 1987 Brundtland World Commission report as –

‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (Davis 2012, cited in Boyd et al 2018).

Although this definition makes a succinct and useful starting point, it belies the complexity of the topic – particularly within the field of education. As a result, more recent early years research into sustainability has expanded beyond activities such as forest school and recycling (important though these are), to include social, economic and political dimensions.

Of particular significance for the early years practitioner is the inclusion of children's rights, as set out in Article 12 of the UN's Convention of the Rights of the Child. Although the link between children's rights and environmental concerns might not immediately seem obvious, it is based on the belief that observing the rights of the child will lead to positive changes in society – which in turn lessens the likelihood of future global problems.

Eco-friendly childcare is central to the Tops Day Nurseries Group

It is also important to remember that the child who is encouraged to have an independent voice – one of the key tenets of Article 12 – is a child who will grow into the empowered global citizen of the future. We cannot ‘train’ our children to sort out the mess we have created, not least because we don't know how things will develop in the future. We can, however, work at helping them to develop into confident and independent thinkers, problem solvers and agents of change.

Sustainability and the EYFS

Interestingly, the word ‘sustainability’ does not appear in any part of the EYFS framework, in spite of revisions to the guidance as recently as 2017. Although it's hard not to see this as an omission, it does give practitioners the opportunity to find their own ways of embedding EfS within their overall provision. Tricia Herbert, a member of the 2008 UNESCO working group on ‘Recommendations on Education for Sustainable Development’ states that ‘EfS can never be delivered in a scheduled programme … it has no standardised assessments, but it is learning that engages the mind, hands, heart and spirit in equal measure’ (Herbert 2008, cited in Boyd et al 2018). The position of being unfettered by the demands of a statutory ‘scheduled programme’ confers a number of advantages on the practitioner:

  • Staff can develop and evolve their knowledge and understanding of sustainability issues without the pressure of meeting set goals
  • Settings can create their own individualised EfS approach, based on specific needs and resources
  • Settings have complete freedom to shape their EfS provision to suit their location (sustainability might be a global issue, but we all have a responsibility to attack environmental problems from our own back yard)
  • Although EfS provision should aim to be comprehensive, settings have freedom to exploit the particular expertise and interests of staff members and parents

It would be unfair to suggest that the EYFS framework doesn't also allow a good degree of autonomy, and any learning and development that takes place within the setting should be pinned to the EYFS. However, the freedom and joy of discovery that can result from working outside the confines of a statutory curriculum (however enlightened that curriculum might be) appear to fit with both the underlying philosophy of sustainability and the rights of the individual.

EfS – challenges and opportunities

As with so many aspects of education, having autonomy over creating an individualised EfS approach presents us with challenges as well as opportunities. Early years practitioners are used to carrying responsibility for the development of our youngest, most precious citizens – but are we also now to take on responsibility for shaping the future saviours of our planet?

As a starting point, it's helpful to remember that most aspects of effective early years practice are relevant to EfS, and that the pre-school age group is more ready for this kind of learning than we might assume. Many young children demonstrate a sophisticated capacity to think about socio-economic issues, and environmental considerations have also been shown to have a greater impact on children's thinking if they are introduced sooner rather than later (Siraj-Blatchford, Smith and Pramling-Samuelsson 2010, cited in Boyd et al 2018).

This nevertheless leaves us with the task of deciding what to focus on, in a hugely complex field. From the rights of the child to cutting down on plastic, what should we be aiming to cover within our own EfS framework, and how can we source appropriate topics for an early years sustainability programme?

Fortunately, a growing awareness that the early years are crucial to EfS is resulting in the adaptation of sustainability policy to suit the early years sector. One such example is the translation of the 17 UN Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) to create a set of early years-oriented strategies called ‘The Love Living Goals’ (Warwick, Warwick and Nash 2018). Apart from being relevant to the microcosm of a young child's life, the goals adopt a positive stance by highlighting enjoyment, hope, action and an underlying belief that children can become both stewards of the world and agents for change (see The ‘Love Living Goals ‘box for more information).

Children's rights

Liverpool John Moores University's Early Childhood Education for Sustainable Development framework suggests that we question our view of children. In line with this advice, the framework includes guidance on some of the habits that enable us to respect and uphold the child's rights. The following are just a few examples:

  • When talking about a child, either include them in the conversation or discuss them in private

  • Avoid laughing at children rather than with them – however amusing their comments or actions.

  • Ask permission before wiping noses, picking up a child or taking their photo

  • Avoid time out; restricting movement is an abuse of the child's human rights

  • Give children the opportunity to become decision makers and influence plans

  • For further suggestions and detail, and to download the EfSD pedagogical toolkit, visit

Towards EfS and a sustainability mindset

It is an inescapable fact that young children are programmed to pick up on and absorb the thoughts, attitudes and values of their key care givers. For this reason, it's important for us to avoid presenting them with a ‘bolted on’ approach to sustainable living. If we ourselves can weave sustainability considerations into every aspect of our behaviour, thinking and decision making, the children will automatically absorb these messages and integrate them into their own future way of life.

Creating a sustainability mindset and developing EfS requires a two-pronged approach, with each practitioner taking responsibility for furthering their own knowledge of sustainability issues, as well as participating in the development of a setting-wide framework for EfS. To come up with a co-ordinated, consistent and integrated approach to sustainability, it's important for every staff member to be fully on board with the aims, principles and practice of EfS. Encourage all practitioners to participate in the following:

  • Read, research and study as widely as possible to educate yourselves in sustainability practices, keep abreast of changes and new discoveries, and give yourselves the information you need to make the best possible choices.
  • Drawing on resources such as the Love Living Goals and the Eco Schools Programme (, compile your own list of areas to work on (water conservation, energy conservation, waste management, food, healthy living, caring for the garden and garden wildlife, and so on). Discuss and agree on the list with staff and children, and invite parental input.
  • Take things at a manageable pace, working on just one or two topics at a time. Aim to explore all aspects of a topic with the children. For example, as well as planning how to conserve water, introduce activities such as making watery artwork, creating water-themed dances, carrying out water experiments and exploring the many different uses of water.

When working on the development of EfS provision, it's useful to keep in mind that we are aiming to pass the baton to the next generation. At the same time, it's important to avoid burdening young children with fears for the future, or feeling that we need to create what Julie Davis and Sue Elliott describe as ‘warriors’ and ‘worriers’ (Davis and Elliot, 2014, cited in Huggins and Evans, 2018). In the early years, our focus should be on creating a healthy world, rather than trying to repair or limit the damage already done.

Recognising that the experiences of the early years create a foundation for later life and learning is a key factor in ensuring a sustainable future for us all (Huggins and Evans, 2018). Developing our own sustainability mindset and creating an EfS framework needs to be prioritised as the first step towards a hopeful new future for all life on Earth.

In next month's article, we look at how we can help children to develop the attitudes, values and behaviours that underpin EfS.

The ‘Love Living Goals’

Based on the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, The Love Living Goals are designed for young children. They cover the following areas:

  • Caring for others
  • Ensuring adequate food
  • Physical, emotional and spiritual well-being
  • Love of learning
  • Gender equality
  • Conserving water
  • Enjoying different weathers
  • Creating safe spaces
  • Looking to the future
  • Being fair
  • Caring for where we live
  • Reducing, reusing, recycling, composting
  • Looking after sky, sea and land
  • Living in peace
  • Forming global friendships
  • For a full list of goals, an explanation of the rationale underlying them, and a case study of the goals in action, see Paul Warwick, Alice Warwick and Kate Nash's chapter ‘Towards a Pedagogy of Hope’ in Early Childhood Education and Care for Sustainability (Huggins and Evans, 2018).

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