We teach little ones to be kind to animals and to not throw rubbish, but can children REALLY help save our world? I’m talking here about our ability to create a long and sustainable future for both the planet and ourselves.
Since this blog is focused on early learners it will be no surprise that I’m all for encouraging children to think, feel and discover for themselves. And to encourage a sense of pride and ownership in thinking critically about issues and possible solutions.
I’ve recently been reading a book of international research papers* discussing this very issue and this post is a reflection of some of the take-aways I had. Of course, it’s just a fraction of the content and my reflections do not do justice to the complexity of the researchers’ work but here are some of the points I gleaned.
A sustainable world?
According to UNESCO we have structured our world on 4 interdependent pillars and a weakness in one will unbalance the rest. For sustainable living, then, we can’t only focus on planting trees, for eg, we have to pay for them, get permission to plant them and make sure the neighbours approve of them. Many would say this makes it too complicated for young children to be involved and to make any genuine contribution. But research denies this… and it’s up to us to give our children the tools and avenues to jump right in.
Effective teaching and learning
- helps develop empathy for the characters.
- helps to see from another perspective, for eg, how the plants or river might feel.
- encourages kids to think about the consequences of certain actions.
- helps them see how issues are woven together, for eg, how environmental and economic issues are intertwined.
- encourages them to discuss the issues in the story and consider possible solutions.
Project based learning: engaging children in a longer-term learning cycle where children learn about an issue, raise questions, search for answers and create solutions. It is learning through inquiry.
- these need to be REAL issues that are relevant to them (that is, not pretend)
- they should (mostly) have a local focus
- teachers may need to break down barriers that might be stopping the kids from contributing (for eg, being a bridge to a politician or championing them to parents as capable rather than dependent, or dealing with the mounds of paperwork required to take a group of young children on a field trip)
- the use of collage to show an environmental problem.
- writing songs about an issue.
- writing and illustrating books about an issue.
- writing and illustrating pamphlets to show facts they’ve learned and concerns they’ve noted.
- creating recycling posters for local businesses.
- drawing maps of their area.
- making bird nests and possum nests.
- making a dinosaur playground using local volcanic rock.
Some great project ideas
Community Nature Walks: In some Australian and Thai neighbourhoods you can find children leading adults on a walk while talking and answering questions posed by adults or other children. Imagine a child talking about how they built a bird feeder in the area with their friends because they wanted to attract more birds.
Create a Kitchen Garden: It’s fairly common now to find early learning centres growing flowers and vegetables. But if you are short of space, like many Singaporean centres, you can still put some herbs in a window sill, or have pots of potatoes and tomatoes in the hallways. And then you can…
Make Organic Lunches: straight out of your garden. In Norway some preschools use only non-electrical kitchen appliances to add to the home-grown/pro-environmental nature of the activity. But I think the point is to look at where you are now, and think about what next step can be taken to help kids make the connection between their daily life and long-term sustainability. (Actually, we’re hoping the ideas will come from the kids themselves rather than from the adults).
Redesign your Outdoor Spaces: There are always better ways to use space to achieve learning outcomes. Over time, brainstorm with the children as to what changes could be made (large or small) to make play areas more natural, more diverse and more inspiring. For design tips and before-and-after photos visit Tessa Rose Natural Playspaces.
Conduct a Water Audit: Have the children determine how much water your centre is using by ‘measuring’ how much they use to wash their hands and flush the toilet. Where is the rainwater going? Are any taps dripping? What could be done to use less, or use it more effectively? Similar audits could be done for electricity, paper usage, garbage disposal, crayons and markers…
Promote an Environmental Council: made up of democratically elected early learners so they can discuss projects and rules for sustainability within their own preschool. An example of a rule was noted by one researcher, “no one is allowed to throw their banana peel in the garbage.”
Work Towards Green Certification: Such as the Green Flag certification for early learning centres in Europe, being an EnviroSchool in New Zealand, an Eco-School in England or a Green Ribbon School in the US. I can’t help but notice the Western focus of this list so if you know of initiatives in Asia, Africa or South America, please leave a link in the comments. The trick is to find programs that also include children under the age of 6.
By the way, clicking on any of those links above will give you many more ideas you can promote to your children.
Teacher issues to be overcome
A number of studies emphasised the notion that many early childhood teachers believe that as long as children are regularly playing in a natural environment that’s their job done. They didn’t want to teach explicit environmental concepts because they didn’t want it to be structured like school and they had an aversion to teaching ‘science.’ The Japanese study in particular raised this question as nature-based play has been a required part of their early childhood programs for over 100 years yet it hasn’t led to environmentally aware citizens. Play alone, without reflection or making connections, is not enough to lead to a sustainably-aware community.
While most teachers profess interest in sustainable living research shows that effective programs require at least one highly committed and enthusiastic teacher or leader if it is to continue. For eg, even though recycling and composting is common practice in Norwegian early learning centres, 30% of staff require an environmental program to be compulsory before they’ll promote sustainable practices over the long term. This shows that:
- teacher in-service and training needs to be given.
- a long-term plan needs to be in place.
- a school-wide, accepted philosophy of learning needs to be articulated that incorporates sustainability principles into the very fabric of the school.
- schools need wildly enthusiastic kids who are excited about their learning and contributions to sustainability – it’s the best way to keep teachers happy and committed.
- preschools who are consistent in their efforts towards sustainability attract like-minded staff so that over time it becomes much easier to maintain the program.
Some studies noted that there were marked differences in community participation according to the approach taken by the schools. If included in the planning phases, parents tended to be more involved and committed to a project. Schools following philosophies such as the Reggio Emilia approach were more open to following student ideas and seeing the possibilities rather than being overwhelmed by the reasons something could not work.
Societal issues to be overcome
There were some common themes present in a number of the papers
While life is much easier with a high living standard, it is a reality that the world cannot sustain a high living standard for everyone. It stands to reason then, that if we want the world’s poor to have a better life we need to re-think consumerism and come up with creative workable solutions. Young children are empowered and emboldened when their voices are taken seriously and they’re more likely to continue this habit, believing they can make a difference, into adulthood.
In general it’s human nature to embrace our right to live life as we please. The problem is, the Earth is a finite resource therefore it’s going to take the collective will of the population to see significant improvement in the environment. This willingness to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem is an excellent attitude for early learners to develop.
While all cultures examined in these papers were pro-environment and most had national environmental policies this emphasis did not always trickle down to their youngest learners.
For some, the issues related to adults not believing children could genuinely participate in sustainability programs, therefore their environmental education efforts (and the funding that goes with them) is aimed at older children.
In Singapore one of the biggest difficulties is parental academic expectations, they want their children well prepared for a rigorous school system rather than playing outside and learning in a seemingly unstructured environment.
For sustainable education to be championed in early childhood, educators need to be fully convinced of its importance and be able to share that conviction with parents and the wider community in a way that is culturally sensitive. In Singapore they emphasise the benefits to body and mind as well as to increasing cognitive skills.
Perhaps your cultural challenge is parents wanting their kids wrapped safely in cotton wool? Or not wanting their children to touch dirt, bugs or worms? Or parents who feel recycling and sustainability concerns are beneath them?
Whatever the issue, it’s good to have a well thought out plan of attack (or should I say, nicely formatted parent information brochures) to start that education process and build support from home. I truly believe most parents will support sustainability initiatives, especially when it’s presented in a positive and do-able way that is not too overwhelming.
A wonderful example
The Mipyung Childcare Centre in Korea had a project highlighted as a case study and I have very briefly noted their process below as an inspiration to all of us. It was carried out by one teacher, one teacher’s aide and 23 5-year olds over a 5 week period. This part of the book was authored by Professor Okjong Ji who was supporting the local preschools in their sustainability efforts. I wish I knew the name of the teacher and teacher’s aide – they surely deserve a shout out, too!
- The teacher decided to focus on the nearby Musim Stream.
- The teacher and children created a topic web of activities/learning ideas that might be possible and in the process aligned them with the national curriculum.
- The teacher accumulated relevant resources including pictures of local plants and animals that she took herself, and asked parents to take their children to the stream to observe the plants and animals.
- They discussed their knowledge of the area and when she realised they had many misperceptions (one child thought whales lived there) they went on a field trip to observe animals and play amongst the grasses and flowers.
- They then enjoyed a number of activities but one comment in particular drew their focus. One child told the class that his mother said there used to be a lot of otters in the stream but now there are hardly any.
- They then learned all about otters and a visiting expert told them the otters were disappearing because of poaching and a polluted food supply.
- They went to the river with the expert to find proof of otters and found footprints and excrement (this was super exciting!)
- They wrote a song, drew pictures and made clay models of otters. They wrote notes to otters, made a book of their knowledge and went to the zoo to observe them.
- They wrote to their local council asking that otters be added to the official local habitat map. Council replied that they needed to supply proof that there were otters in the stream, which they did. The Council said they would add them when the budget allowed.
- The children created their own habitat map for young children where they illustrated the plants and animals they’d observed and presented it to the younger children at the centre.
- The culminating event was to gather at a nearby park which was a popular meeting place for the local community. They carried “protect the otters” signs and gave a performance by singing songs they’d written and answering questions from the audience. Afterwards they distributed information, badges with hand drawn otter pictures, a list of 10 ways to protect the otters and chanted “save the otters.” This event was picked up by local media and was a catalyst for community interest in otter protection.
- In the long-term parents noted that their children maintained their interest in otters and in making changes at home (such as using less shampoo). Also, friends and relatives of the children maintained pressure on the council regarding the habitat map.
Margaret Mead said, “A small group of people can change the world.” Let’s take it further and say “A small group of small people can change the world!”
Do you have any stories of activities your kids have done that have increased their awareness of the world? Or links that readers might find useful? Please share them in the comments.
* The Research
Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: International perspectives and provocations. Edited by Julie Davis and Sue Elliot. Published by Taylor and Francis, June 2014.
I also referred to:
Young Children and the Environment: Early Education for Sustainability. Edited by Julie Davis. 2010. Cambridge University Press.
Graphics for this post by Edu-clips
Looking for teaching materials?
If you are looking for teaching materials on this theme please visit this wonderful New Zealand teacher’s site Green Grubs Garden Club, her Pinterest board or her TpT store where she has tons of beautifully designed materials for outdoor learning.