10th March 2022 All Posts

June O’Sullivan: Nurturing Sustainability in the Early Years

Walk to the station and what do you see?  Plastic litter, discarded coffee cups and blue disposable face masks – the detritus of the modern consumerist society.  Turn on the TV and you hear David Attenborough talking about the extinction of species in our lifetime, the weather presenter talking about unusual weather patterns and politicians warning about the need to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and methane which may be causing the climate change

But what does this all mean to a child? It’s very important as our children are the next citizens and they are currently growing up in an environment of confusion where adults who really don’t understand the issues of sustainability. Too many have no idea why the simple act of dropping litter is as damaging to the climate as buying clothes which have used far too much water to make or eating almonds grown in a monoculture where water sources are being depleted to meet our faddy diets.

Can we address this in the Early Years?  Well just like Bob the Builder, yes, we can. But we have to look at what we do already which is unsustainable. This can be overwhelming and prevent us taking any small steps such a thinking about recycling, reducing waste and perhaps stop buying certain products you thought were essential to your cleaning.

Sustainability concerns are not new. One of the seminal books on understanding our ecological relationship with the land was written in 1949 by Aldo Leopold called The Green Movement. Aldo was massively influential in jump starting the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. In 1987 the Brundtland Commission really pulled all the three interconnected elements of sustainability together (economic, social and environmental) and set in train the UNESCO Sustainability Goals (2015).

Every decision you make can touch all three elements. For example, when you buy an avocado in London, your purchase has an economic impact on the growers of Chile. In trying to meet demand, they must expand their crops more than the land can produce and in doing so use up all their water sources which are now privatised and more expensive. So, farmers are getting poorer trying to meet the costs of growing avocados which impacts on the ability to farm sustainably.  The result is poverty, the destruction of their lifestyle, the breakup of communities, exodus to the cities and the growth of avocado cartels dominating the space.  This is before you even consider the airmiles or the damage of huge refrigeration ships which carry your avocados across the sea to your breakfast plate in the middle of winter.

So what can we do?

For us to begin to understand sustainability, it has to have meaning and we need to have the setting involved. Change needs to come from the top and the bottom and leaders need to ensure that it is filtered through policies and practice so it’s not just an add on project. 

For example, consider inviting staff to become Eco Champions and perhaps introduce a training programme to get them started such as the Level 4 Diploma in Sustainability (which LEYF wrote) to make it easy for colleagues to grasp.

Also, think about involving the children, their parents and the wider community.  Many people want to do something but they are not sure where to start. Our book: 50 Fantastic Ideas for Sustainability is full of useful ideas and a good reference for practitioners looking to advocate sustainability into their pedagogy and operational practice.

Based on the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals which the 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a ‘blueprint’ to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, here are some examples of how you could integrate an understanding of these into your setting by addressing them in your own small way.

SDG 1: “No Poverty”. 

Child poverty is a big issue. In the UK, 1 in 4 children live in families where according to the Social Metrics Commission (2020) work doesn’t always pay and 60% of people who work are still in poverty. Childcare needs to be affordable to enable parents to work so you could join a network and lobby the Government for more investment.

SDG 2: Zero Hunger

Do you have a food bank? Do you support food banks? Can you help? 

SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing

Develop a real relationship with nature and get gardening. 

SDG 4: Quality Education

Think about your resources. Buy some great books to start the learning.

SDG 5: Gender Equality 

Support men in childcare.

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

Teach children about water conservation in the nursery by learning not to waste it. Consider recycling rainwater in the garden, taps that don’t drip and loos that use less water to flush (grey water). Better still, re-use rainwater as an irrigation system, plant drought loving plants and avoid plastic bottled water.  

SDG 7:  Affordable and Clean Electricity

Review your electricity consumption. Check the setting for old inefficient lighting.

SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Examine ways of providing staff with better benefits such as a good pension, proper training and development opportunities no matter what type of employment contract they have. 

SDG 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

Consider your building design. For example, use trough sinks rather than individual ones as they waste a lot less water. 

SDG10: Reduced Inequalities

Inclusion is often narrowly perceived to be about race, gender and disabilities but it is much more than this and the Early Years sector must be fully alert to what this means in order to deliver inclusion.  For example, a report by Simpson (2015) found that some ECEC staff allowed their personal view of poverty to impact on their responses to children including whether to seek additional support for the child as they believed the support would not be valued or continued at home. 

SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Join a local campaign to plant more trees. Use the local green space more. 

SDG12: Responsible Consumption and Production

1ReduceDecrease consumption of food wastage, materials and resources 
2ReuseUse materials many times and for different purposes
3RepairFix things rather than discarding them or repurposing them. Understand the circular economy
4RecycleBe aware of other ways of discarding rubbish. Teach children how to do this and the difference they can make to the planet
5RotLet things go back to the earth to enrich the next crop of plants while also providing a habitat for many insects
6RespectNurturing understanding of and respect of nature and natural processes
7ReflectEmbed the habit of being thoughtful, asking questions and wondering about experiences
8ResponsibilityBeing socially and economically sustainable and making decisions that are sustainability responsible 

Our book, 50 Fantastic Ideas for Sustainability is in fact wrapped around these 8 Rs.

SDG13: Climate Action

Turn the heating a little lower. Walk where you can and maybe consider a bicycle scheme. 

SDG14:  Life Below Water

A first step would be to ban single use plastic, remove glitter, stop using clingfilm and replace wet wipes. All this would reduce plastic usage spreading to the oceans. 

SDG15: Life on Land

One very simple idea is to create a “Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ competition to encourage children and staff to take photos of wildlife they find in their gardens or on trips and outings – whether a small bug, a speedy squirrel or a noisy parrot! 

SDG 16 Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Some children are growing up in places where there is no peace and Early Years settings are often the only safe space in their community. Look at your Inclusion policy and understand how you teach children to be respectful of each other within their communities. Take them out and about and visit local organisations and get involved in community activities. 

SDG17: Partnership for the Goals

This is our call to action. Our children will inherit the predicted catastrophic 2050. Those of us leading in ECEC have a duty to future proof as much as possible and should learn how to tread lightly on the planet.  

Now you know that you can start some changes, make a plan and don’t let anything get in the way. Reduce your stuff and start thinking about buying what you need not what you want. Watch your food waste, don’t drop litter and when you are thirsty turn on the cold tap! Start small to make a big difference.  As Greta Thunberg says:

“The moment we decide to fulfil something, we can do anything.”

Share this article
About the Author

June O'Sullivan MBE is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), a social enterprise which currently runs 37 nurseries across eleven London boroughs. An inspiring speaker, author and regular media commentator on Early Years, Social Business and Child Poverty, June has been instrumental in achieving a major strategic, pedagogical and cultural shift for the award winning London Early Years Foundation, resulting in increased profile, new childcare model and stronger social impact over the past ten years. As CEO and creator of the UK's leading childcare charity and social enterprise since 2006, June continues to break new ground in the development of LEYF's scalable social business model. She remains a tireless campaigner, looking for new ways to influence policy and make society a better place for all children and families.