13th October 2022 Sustainability in the Early Years Early Years Foundation Stage All Posts

Education for Sustainable Development – An Introduction

What is sustainability and why should it become part of my practice? 

Education and Sustainability; two momentous words which have the power to change the world as we know it. With the wide range of definitions using terminology which can sometimes be quite overwhelming, particularly when you are just starting to investigate how to ‘do your bit’ for the future and it’s developing citizens. 

To summarise and simplify:

Sustainable development is a necessary ongoing process that aims to create a better world. ‘Oh that’s all!’  I hear you say! There is a universal understanding that has evolved with time in which sustainability can be seen to be held up by three concepts: social, environmental, and economic. As you can see in the diagram below. Sustainability needs all three to be in place to develop and meet the world’s needs. 

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) “empowers learners with knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to take informed decisions and make responsible actions for environmental integrity, economic viability and a just society” UNESCO. 2020

Education for Sustainable Development is identified by the UN as an essential element of Sustainable Development Goal as part of a person’s access to quality education.

Sustainable Development Goals launch in 2016

One of the many benefits of our job is the feeling of being valued. We know that we are making a difference to tomorrow’s citizens enabling them to be able to navigate and problem solve the challenges of today for tomorrow. By educating the children about sustainability we are providing them the tools to make informed choices and take individual and collective action to change our societies and develop their care of and for the planet. In short, sustainability is not just ‘green washing’ or a public policy. Sustainability is survival. 

It is important that children know of ways to consume sustainably. Naturally, when we look at the 17 sustainability goals there are some areas which we may find challenging to introduce to young children such as extreme poverty and inequality, loss of biodiversity and environmental damage. Education needs to focus on the positivity of sustainability; creating a nurturing policy which teaches the children and their community how to develop sustainable awareness and behaviours; finding and looking at solutions to the problem, creating an ‘I can’ attitude. 

In the resources box below is the link to a beautiful Kenyan story ‘The hummingbird’ told by Nobel peace winner, Professor Wangari Maathai. To summarise there is a huge fire in the forest, all the animals stand around and stare. The tiny humming fills its beak with water and puts it on the fire. The other animals, such as the elephant who could have helped or carried even more water say to the hummingbird, “What are you doing? You will never put out the fire!” and the hummingbird does not stop take water to the fire but responds to his critics, “I am doing the best I can.”  It is important to remember this when working with such a sizable topic as sustainability. Those small steps have an impact and add up. You never know who you may inspire. The nature of education for sustainable development means you will find meaningful moments in which to develop sustained shared thinking so creating children as learning partners becomes part of the solution. Their creative yet common sense minds are designed to find solutions. I have found the children become highly involved in sustainable projects and why would they not be? This is their home and future they are investing in, regardless of what path they follow in later years.  

Knowledge is not everything, it is about developing certain behaviours too. Yes, we need to teach the children about sustainability but it is more about embedding, instilling sustainable values and understanding in our children. Such as a sense of stewardship, avoiding waste, developing an attitude of thrift, an attachment to nature, empathy, hope and justice. Create habits and behaviours which support sustainability rather than focus on the consequences of previous generations mistakes and carelessness. 

Most projects can easily involve all three pillars of sustainability. For example, a seed to plate project:

  • Social and cultural – producing fresh vegetables for the local community. What is local produce and how can we have a healthy society?
  • Environment – growing the vegetables, becoming carers of living things such as plants and nature. 
  • Economics – How to avoid waste? The quantity of vegetables they could grow in a certain plot. Creating a stall to sell their produce to purchase something for the nursery such as more seeds or something the children have voted for. 

There are so many programs and support networks out there to help settings start their education for life journey of sustainability such as:

I have had the benefit of experiencing both initiatives, finding them both very helpful enabling me to focus and support my setting sustainability. Both have a tiered award system which your setting can work towards. 

Now you have a starting point which gives you an understanding of Education for Sustainable Development and how it could look in your setting. The following articles will focus on each pillar of sustainability; with planning ideas/links to EYFS curriculum, anecdotal examples, and resources such as books and online platforms. This nurturing series is here to support you and remind you that you are making a difference. That there is still time and hope to have a positive impact on tomorrow’s society. Most importantly like the hummingbird you are doing the best you can. 

This is a 4 part blog series on sustainable development. See part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here.

In the meantime, why not check out these 10 Activities That Teach Your Children About Sustainability.


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About the Author

Jessica Holme is an Early Years Teacher at Newlands Spring Nursery.