When I mention my work in early childhood education for sustainability, invariably there are puzzled looks.
Typically questions arise about how you can do that with young children, sustainability is too abstract and the topic is too dire. This article is about setting the record straight and arguing why young children must be involved and how.
Climate change has long-term consequences for children globally, but particularly those aged birth to eight years.
This is a developmentally-significant window when limited food or water, family removal due to weather events and increased diarrhoeal disease due to higher temperatures will have potentially life-long impacts.
Further, recent generations have eroded resources and we are living beyond our means, thus intergenerational equity for children is at stake.
Currently, UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UNESCO, 2015) guide the international agenda and education is key. So, how might this goal be progressed with young children?
Children demonstrate innate interests in how the world works, so sustainability practices can be integrated into their daily experience. Sorting waste for recycling, conserving water and creatively repurposing materials for play are possible with young children.
Adults are role models and can share why these practices are important.
Experiences with natural materials such as sand, water and plants are part of childhood and there is an urgent need to reconnect children with nature through such experiences. Early childhood services are supported by their curriculum to implement nature play.
Engaging in daily sustainability practices reflects our world views and values and inevitably there are dilemmas to negotiate.
For example, you could discuss with a group of children what a sustainable lunchbox might contain or what depth the bath water should be. These discussions offer learning around problem-solving, negotiation and understanding different perspectives.
There may be no one right answer, but the shared process with knowledgeable and supportive adults is critical.
Such conversations may lead to exploring “big picture” environmental concerns. In a recent study, young children explored the dilemmas of introduced mosquito fish eating native frog tadpoles, and waterbirds eating rubbish in a lake.
Two key ecological concepts emerged in the children’s thinking: belonging and balance. Sustainability is not too abstract for young children!
Dr Sue Elliott is a senior lecturer in Early Childhood Education at UNE.