9th January 2023 Sustainability in the Early Years Early Years Foundation Stage All Posts

Education for Sustainable Development – Environment

This is a 4 part blog series on sustainable development. See part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

Environmental Sustainability in the Early Years

The World Health Organisation notes that human wellbeing is closely linked to nature. Mind.org explains how time spent outside benefits mental health, clearly confirmed during the pandemic where the ‘ daily walk outside’ helped people cope with imposed isolation and stress. There is a joy being responsible for conserving natural resources and protecting our ecosystems that support our health and wellbeing now and in the future. Instilling that core responsibility in the next generation is essential.

Early years and outdoors are natural cohabitors! (Pun intended) 

The Three Pillars of Sustainability

On a basic level children are naturally drawn to an outside area and exploring the world around them in a multisensory way. Combine this with the Early Years sector as the ‘poor relative’ in education and most practitioners as natural recyclers means a family of ‘The Wombles’ can appear amongst the trees. What only appears as cardboard boxes to others, to us shows a range of creative and learning opportunities. Children’s joy as they explore and create cannot be exaggerated.

 It is also understanding that natural resources are finite, developing a new mindset of using less and reducing human greed. A simple way we implemented this was establishing the children only had ‘so much’ of something during a play session so the bucket of water could only have 3 refills. Once the water is gone it’s gone till the next play session so the children’s exploration of natural resources was done mindfully as was the children’s problem solving exploring how to make things last longer and make sure things were shared fairly in their play.

At our nursery we have a Froebelian and Forest School setting, so the children have direct contact with nature which is vital for our play strategies and very important in our core development of the children’s future citizenship. Not only do we let the children play outside in all weathers for most of the time in a session, but we also have an allotment area where the children grow their own produce which we cook and share, we take children to different outdoor spaces with local walks and we ‘Green Up’ an area with the children. ‘Greening Up’ is creating nature areas and designing them to encourage as biodiverse areas as possible. 

This approach created and built our ‘wild wood’ area which has a range of fruit trees, flowers, and greenery. The children designed this as a little maze, blocking off the wild areas with sticks they sawed apart and string. This ‘Greening up’ project has been such a success that we have selected another area behind the shed, which was wasted space, to turn into a wild meadow creating a viewing platform at the side so the children can sit and observe nature in action.

This need to connect the head and mind (I need more – I need to survive) and the heart (stewardship of my environment) stops the dissociation from nature. It flourishes with gratitude and love of and for nature, making the future citizens we are proud of. As we have found from previous families this life skill is continued by the children and families after they have left our setting. For example, we take our children litter picking around the local environment, we borrow the equipment from our local government and take care of our community. Families who have left talk about their child’s strong sense of responsibility for nature, how they make sure that any litter they see goes in the bin.

It is making the stewardship of our environment a daily habit. Dr Jane Goodall notes that we should not follow the term ‘think globally, act locally’. You should think locally, by everyone thinking and acting locally, all communities add up to a global one. The ripple effects add up to global waves. It also means that each community can get personal with its specific sustainability needs. 

Introducing the children to this community of stewardship can be done in a fun and free way. For example, visiting local farmers markets; discussions about where foods come from, how people who grow food for us help us, look at different types of farming like rural and urban farming, discussing how to reduce carbon footprint by growing your own or using these local resources. Once you have introduced the children to this community you can get the children growing their own fruit and vegetables. This leads to core learning such as seasonal food, the skills needed to grow your own food from scratch and cooking it. The best part of this is what the children learn and teach their families…and the ripple effect continues into the future.

As Early Years practitioners we know it is important to support and follow the children’s interests, and for some of the children digging for worms, litter picking or making a bird feeder from recycled materials may not be their ‘cup of tea’. And that is perfectly okay. As Early Years practitioners we also know the key adults in a child’s life can have a massive influence on a child’s way of thinking. As one of the key adults in our children’s lives we can bring joy to a child through nature. Developing an awe and wonder of the natural world through support, modelling and introducing them to caring about the environment. Helping them become caring and responsible adults by providing them with hope and possible opportunities around them. 

By presenting the children with this hope we can show that their voice matters, that it can be heard and make a difference; how they can use their voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. By noticing, appreciating, and respecting the natural world we can bring its beauty into our lives. For as Alice Walker notes ‘In nature, nothing is perfect, and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.’

Why not check out our Early Years Gardening Activity Guide for activity ideas that encourage children to explore outdoors.



  • The Curious Gardener – Peter Brown
  • Eco Baby : Oceans
  • Eco Baby: Rainforests
  • Eco Baby: Ice burgs
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About the Author

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