10 Promising Practices of Early Childhood Education For Sustainability

Curriculum is integrated and place-based.

An integrated curriculum grounded in one’s place—the local human and natural community— is key to Education for Sustainability in early childhood. In order for children to become citizens who are engaged in creating sustainable communities, they must care for, and understand the interconnectedness of their human and natural community and world. To foster this sense of caring and proclivity toward action, children must first be provided with the opportunity to explore and connect to their places, guided by their senses of wonder and curiosity.

EXAMPLE: A preschool class steps out the school doors to explore the community around them. Building capacity for safety and learning, the teachers start with short excursions outside the school yard, practicing walking safely on the sidewalks, sticking together, and going a little further each time out. As children’s capacities grows, the class takes pictures of favorite or interesting spots. These photos are printed in triplicate to use in the classroom in a matching game and to be added to the class map. During a bread unit, the class visits various neighborhood stores to buy and taste a variety of breads representing many of the cultures in the classroom.

Learning and curriculum are play-based and emergent.

Learning is seamless and is led by the child’s sense of wonder, curiosity, and innate ability to construct meaning through play. The teacher acts as a guide, creating opportunities for child- directed discovery, as well as facilitating learning experiences that build on the conversations, play, and questions that emerge from classroom dynamics and adventures.

EXAMPLE: A camp for preschool-age children spends the days outdoors in the forest. As the campers explore sections of the forest they create areas that represent Olympic challenges. Log walking and stump jumping are popular. Other campers create and play in castles and pirate ships fashioned from old stumps. When the teacher discovers a red eft, she gently captures it and invites the children over to examine it, and lets them take turns holding it. As she marvels at it with the children she asks them, “What else do you think we might find living here?” Later, the teacher suggests to the children that they could try walking like the red eft they found.

Sustainability is a lens.

When decisions need to be made, we might ask, “What would be a more sustainable choice?” Rather than being an add-on, Education for Sustainability provides an opportunity to use sustainability as a lens to envision the entire school or program— from how decisions are made, to curricular content, to purchasing supplies, configuration of outdoor play spaces, and connecting with families. Thinking and decision-making are guided by finding the optimal intersections of environmental integrity, social equity, and economic prosperity.

EXAMPLE: A private pre-k program has a mission of social and racial justice and a commitment to maintain no racial majority within its program. Therefore, they offer sliding-scale tuition, and have eliminated the traditional financial aid and tuition program.

Campus and classroom demonstrate and practice sustainability.

Young children learn by doing. When the campus demonstrates and models sustainability practices, young children innately learn, and
thus practice, sustainability. In early childhood the implicit practices are just as important as the explicit curriculum. Practices such as classroom composting, reusing supplies, and democratic decision making in partnership with children all implicitly model sustainability for young learners.

EXAMPLE: Recycling, using environmentally friendly cleaning products, composting, and gardening are all regular parts of the pre-k and kindergarten classes’ daily routines. In an effort to help young children to really understand composting, one class uses a small, clear plastic bin to collect food scraps, dead leaves, plants, and a few handfuls of soil to witness the process of their food being broken down into compost.

Young children explore their connection to and relationship with the natural and built world through developmentally appropriate Big Ideas of Sustainability.

There are big ideas, or underlying concepts, that are fundamental to understanding and demonstrating sustainability. In early childhood these Big Ideas of Sustainability are: cycles, change, fairness, community, diversity, and interdependence. These ideas are integrated into the natural rhythm of and learning that happens in early childhood. Young children explore these big ideas and their relationship to them through inquiry, play, and exploring their classroom, school, and neighborhood communities in relevant and meaningful ways.

EXAMPLE: Preschool-age children dive into the Big Ideas of Animal and Plant Cycles, and Change Over Time, as they explore what happens to the garden and animals in winter. Trips to the snow-covered garden show that small creatures are making tiny tunnels through the snow. Garden plants, grasses, and weeds have gone to seed and many of the seeds are scattered on the snow. Their teacher reads books about animal adaptations in winter and the class decides to set up a similar habitat in their classroom. Teachers supply plastic tunnels, white sheets, and some puppets, and the children create an indoor habitat to mimic what they found outdoors. This focus leads to continued observation as the snow melts and plants begin to grow again in the spring.

Young children have a voice, make decisions, and draw connections between their choices and the impact on their worlds.

Children need to see themselves as capable, knowledgeable, and participatory citizens. They need to be given the opportunity to make decisions, share their thinking, advocate for their needs and fairness, and problem solve to make a difference. Young children are capable of understanding and observing change over time, and how they affect their small world through everyday actions and words. When children are given the opportunity to shape their own world in childhood they will grow to have the ability to shape the larger world.

EXAMPLE: Kindergarten students decide it is important for their neighborhood and schoolyard to have animals and plants, to be clean, and to
have safe places for kids to play in. Students go on neighborhood walks to evaluate if these features are present in their neighborhood and schoolyard. Following the walks, students brainstorm projects the class could do on a schoolwide Day of Service to meet the needs that they had uncovered on their walks. Students plan and carry out the creation of a shade garden to provide a habitat for animals, build two sandboxes, and organize a neighborhood clean-up.

Local and cultural perspectives are considered and learned through building healthy relationships with family, classroom, and community.

Investigating and exploring the local community is key to Education for Sustainability, especially in early childhood. Young children need to be connected with their natural and built communities in positive and healthy ways. They need to explore and experience natural cycles, human diversity, and healthy relationships with others and the environment. The local human and natural worlds are the context for learning and provide a framework for global comparisons as a child’s worldview expands. Children investigate differences and explore multiple perspectives, respect, tolerance, and diversity.

EXAMPLE: As a part of their study of THE LITTLE RED HEN, the first grade begins to study the life cycle of wheat and the role bread plays in our diets. They visit a variety of local ethnic markets, grocery stores, and bodegas to find the different kinds of bread people in their community eat. At school, they hold a taste test and try all the different bread, sharing with one another the types of bread they eat at home.

Learning is relevant and connected to children’s lives.

Embedding sustainability into the fabric and life of the curriculum and school is essential to developing the attitudes, skills, and knowledge in our children so they can contribute to and build sustainable communities now and into the future. Our young citizens need to see themselves as a part of their community and need their learning to be reflective of the lives they are living. When we allow the community and students’ interests to guide learning and curriculum, academic achievement and engagement is high.

EXAMPLE: The kindergarten classes conduct a yearlong study of Community Helpers. As they learn about all the people and organizations that play meaningful roles in their community, and discover what they do, the children quickly begin to understand the importance of every member of their community. As the children explore how we all depend on each other, they start to appreciate the role these people and organizations play in their homes, classroom, and neighborhood communities. Through daily interactions, as well as several service projects, the children come to realize that, in fact, they are Community Helpers themselves.

Children practice inquiry and open-ended questioning.

Scientific literacy and inquiry is crucial to building sustainable communities. It is essential for children to develop a healthy attitude toward, and understanding of, the environment. Inquiry is more than just asking questions; inquiry requires the learner to think critically, find and process information, use that information in real-life situations, and regularly engage in reflection—all vital twenty-first-century skills.

EXAMPLE: In a pre-k classroom, essential questions span several units of study. Questions are open enough to explore many topics of children’s interests, but focused enough to allow children to make connections. When children explore “What’s happening in winter?” focusing on the big ideas of change, cycles, and responsibility; they explore the changing landscape and weather from fall to winter, specifically observing trees, squirrels in their schoolyard, snowflakes, and how they take care of themselves and each other when the weather gets cold.

Anti-bias, equity, and justice form the foundation of our teaching.

Each one of us has a unique and vital role to play in creating the communities we want to be a part of, and the perspectives, experience, and background we bring shed more light together than they do in isolation. Creating classrooms and school communities with respect, justice, and equity at their heart—the kinds of classrooms that will allow each child to reach his or her true potential—require educators to investigate our own power and privilege and often reframe our understanding of identity. Each child and each family who enter our classrooms bring with them tremendous assets, and many of us also carry personal and communal histories of oppression. EFS demands that every single one of us commits to teaching, finding and using materials, and creating a classroom environment that honors the culture, family structure, gender identity, race, and gifts of all our students. We also must commit to identifying, intervening, and exploring oppression with our students.

EXAMPLE: Teaching faculty, administrators, and support staff spend the course of a year reading and discussing the book COURAGEOUS CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACE by Glen Eric Singleton and Curtis Linton. The book explores the role of race in education. They begin to better understand what different racial, cultural, and gender identities mean for themselves and their students and start to change the materials (books, toys, games) in their classroom and some of the language they use (no longer saying “boys and girls,” for example). They develop a greater capacity for identifying and interrupting oppression and a better understanding of systemic forms of oppression.

We at Origins Education are proud to feature a place and play-based curricula.