Embedding sustainability: The wider picture

Janet King
Friday, June 10, 2022

Why is it important to embed sustainability into our early years provision and how can providers do that? Janet King explores these questions, with the view of the early years being at the forefront of this pressing issue for the education sector.

Janet King
sector manager education and childcare, NCFE

It has become increasingly important to teach and practice sustainability as climate change is a key issue for concern. Given the urgency of the issue and the need for a nationwide and cross-generational approach, this work must start as soon as learning begins, within early childhood.

Children need to be aware of how they are interconnected within a wider ecological context, and that actions have an impact. They must not be framed as ‘saviours’ of the planet, but rather as being a vital part of a wider picture. We know from research that fundamental values and attitudes are formed in early childhood, so it's important to lay the foundations then. Early years settings are primed for educating children on sustainability and there are several easy steps that can be taken to promote awareness and create lifelong habits.


Teaching sustainability

Resourcefulness is a key element in sustainable practice. Simple changes such as reusing materials for craft purposes, replacing single-use plastic with reusable containers and reducing unnecessary consumption can all make a big difference. Creating artwork out of recycled materials can be a really positive way to engage children in a sustainable activity that will teach them which items are able to be recycled and which are not. This could be done as a collaborative effort with the whole class participating to see what they can create out of ‘rubbish’.

Meanwhile, educating children on waste and recycling will result in them being able to independently recycle their waste and generate habits that will be carried with them throughout their lives. The simplest way to do this is to have separate bins within the nursery with clear labels as to whether they are recycling or general waste. Composting is also a great activity for children to be involved in and they will have the opportunity to see the process step by step, giving them a rounded understanding of what happens to leftover food.

Beyond the environmental benefits of teaching children about sustainability from a young age, learning about it helps children to make sense of the world around them, exploring the ‘what if’ and ‘how’. Through learning about the world, children begin to connect with and develop a passion for the environment, for nature and their relationship with it, as well as understanding the criticality of sustainability.

Alongside teaching sustainability practices, spending time immersed in nature can have a really positive impact on young children, enabling them to visualise the environment that they are trying to protect. Through education on trees, plants and wildlife, early-years settings can make sustainability a central part of the children's thinking. Creating a garden that the children can have an active role in provides them with an authentic ecological opportunity. It is really important for young children to participate in gardening in order to promote sustainable food consumption. It demonstrates to the children that they are fully capable of growing their own produce in a sustainable way.

There are many activities that nurseries can do to make gardening even more exciting, for example, growing plants in old wellies or stuffing old tights with soil and grass seed to create a hairy animal when the grass grows. Both of these activities also promote recycling.

Another option to help develop awareness in young children is to visit a local farm. It is more important than ever for children to have an understanding of where their food comes from, visiting a farm encourages them to actively think about what it is they eat. Events such as National Outdoor Week (12th – 20th March), National Insect Week (20th – 26th June) and National Tree Week (25th November – 3rd December) can be used as inspiration for teaching children about nature.


Practicing sustainability

In addition to what we're teaching children, early years organisations need to be putting sustainability practices into place in their own settings. Once again, this can be done through relatively easy steps that are often employed in the home but not necessarily in the workplace. As a prime example, if early years settings attempt to reduce the individual packaging on items, for example by using reusable lunch boxes, their levels of waste going to landfill will be significantly reduced.

Similarly, while nappies play an important role in early childhood, unfortunately they also play a key role in polluting the planet. Every day, 8 million disposable nappies are thrown away in the UK, accounting for 3 per cent of all household waste. Early years settings are well placed to tackle this. Alternative methods include switching to reusable cloth or biodegradable nappies, or at least raising an awareness of such products.


Through their proximity to children and their families, the early years sector is in a great position to influence future generations on their approach to sustainability, as well as reducing the carbon footprint of the industry as a whole, and so much is happening already.


Implementing best practice across the sector

Beyond the day-to-day things that providers can be doing to increase awareness and action around sustainability, there also needs to be more action on a broader, sector-wide scale to generate long-term and embedded change.

NCFE is an educational charity and leader in vocational and technical learning and is also the UK's leading sector specialist in health, care and education. NCFE has developed qualifications of excellence for over 70 years to more than 1,000 UK-based and overseas delivery partners. One of NCFE's priorities as an organisation is supporting early years' providers to incorporate sustainability in its practices. This is in line with the Birth to Five Matters 2021 guidance developed by the early years foundation stage (EYFS), which sets standards for the learning, development and care of children from birth to five years old.

NCFE has been working with Dr Diane Boyd of Liverpool John Moores University to develop a resource that embeds sustainability and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) into early years experiences for young children (see further reading). The resource will support practitioners, students, and parents to learn more about our responsibilities to each other and the world in which we live.

The resource provides an opportunity to embed education for sustainability into all aspects of early childhood, from practitioners level 2 to level 7 and will be accessible across the early years and childcare suite of qualifications. It aims to support practitioners working directly with young children; students during their training; and parents with young children. This holistic approach to entrenching sustainability into early years education will help to secure long-term impact.

NCFE offers examples of how to talk to children about sustainability and offers texts and provocations as a starting point. It's important that during these discussions, practitioners and parents follow the child's thinking which can always take the discussion in an interesting direction. The intention of this resource is to support practitioners working directly with young children, as well as students during their training and parents to engage with sustainability, learning more about our responsibilities to each other and the world in which we live. Through providing innovative, yet simple and straightforward ideas, practitioners will more easily be able to make sustainability a central part of their practice.

A holistic approach

Overall, it's clear that we need to be tackling the issue of sustainability across many different facets of the early years sector. From how providers tackle sustainability on a practical level, to teaching and learning, and resources, it's through bringing everything together that we'll see tangible results. This is a really exciting time for early years to be at the forefront of a pressing issue for the education sector, and providers and practitioners should think about how they use the ongoing discussions and ideas to strengthen their provision.


Further reading

NCFE, 2021. An Early Childhood Education for Sustainability resource that embeds the Sustainable Development Goals and STEM into pedagogical practice. Available at: https://www.ncfe.org.uk/all-articles/supporting-practitioners-embed-sustainability-early-years/

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