In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sustainability Education in Early Childhood Education

  • Introduction
  • UNESCO Guiding Documents
  • Edited Collections on Sustainability Education in Early Childhood
  • Books (Authored) on Sustainability Education in Early Childhood

Education Sustainability Education in Early Childhood Education
Jenny Ritchie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0275


Sustainability education is a comparatively new component of early childhood care and education. It has emerged in response to growing concerns about the state of humanity and the planet on which we depend, and in recognition of the early years as foundational in the establishment of dispositions related to ways of knowing, being, doing, and relating. Such dispositions can reflect key aspects of caring, learning, and acting in accordance to values that are life-enhancing for people and planet. UNESCO definitions of sustainability education recognize the interconnectedness of social, cultural, ecological, and economic justice as key dimensions in generating a world that sustains both human and more-than-human diversity. Sustainability education within the field of early childhood education similarly reflects the consideration that young children and their families are agentic and can act in ways that reflect a commitment to social justice and to protect planetary biodiversity at their local levels, as well as advocate for political changes in service of local and global well-being, such as policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. UNESCO, as the lead United Nations agency for education, science, and culture, has been mandated to lead education for sustainability since the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002. Within UNESCO discourse, the terminology used is “Education for Sustainable Development” in recognition of the tensions that exist between the “developed” and “developing” nations in that the former are over-utilizing the resources of the earth in an unsustainable manner, while many in the majority world struggle to live in ways that maintain their well-being. The current United Nations Sustainable Development Goals outline a program intended to address seventeen key areas, which include poverty, hunger, health and well-being, education, gender equality, life on land and in the water, climate action, and sustainable cities and communities. Goal 4.7 recognizes they key role that education plays in furthering the entire SDG agenda: “Target 4.7: By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development” (UNESCO 2017, p. 7, cited under UNESCO Guiding Documents). This signals that all educators, from the early years and beyond, should incorporate such key focuses within the programs they offer. Beginning with some key UNESCO documents, the sections below cover some key texts and articles that provide guidance for sustainability education in early childhood settings.

UNESCO Guiding Documents

UNESCO has produced many policy and guidance documents related to education for sustainability. UNESCO uses the phrase “education for sustainable development” (ESD) to describe education that is “about empowering and motivating learners to become active sustainability citizens who are capable of critical thinking and able to participate in shaping a sustainable future,” which requires pedagogical approaches that are learner-centered, action-oriented, and transformative (UNESCO 2017, p. 54). Local cultural and traditional sustainability knowledge and socio-emotional well-being goals are to be included within ESD programs (UNESCO 2017). Delors 1996 is a seminal report that questions reliance on economic growth and material progress in delivering equity or respect for the environment and emphasizes core ESD values and the importance of early childhood education. Samuelsson and Kaga 2008 considers the role of early childhood education in relation to education for sustainability, acknowledging the intersection of the “‘three pillars’ of education for sustainable development—namely economy, environment and socio-cultural phenomena” (p. 11). UNESCO 2012 provides an overview of the topic of education for sustainable development good practices in early childhood. UNESCO 2015 posits a humanistic vision for education for sustainability, based in principles of respect for life, social justice, and human dignity, along with a concern for the relationship between humanity and the natural environment. UNESCO 2017 outlines eight overarching key competencies for achieving the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and then details specific ESD cognitive, socio-emotional, and behavioral learning objectives.

  • Delors, J. 1996. Learning: The treasure within: Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.

    This report highlighted core ESD values such as “truth, kindness, justice and liberty” (p. 297) and democracy, to be delivered through the four pillars of “learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be” (p. 97). It also emphasized the foundational role of early childhood education and expressed the expectation that this should be extended to all children globally.

  • Samuelsson, I. P., and Y. Kaga. 2008. The contribution of early childhood education to a sustainable society. Paris: UNESCO.

    The workshop highlighted that early childhood education should recognize the value of traditional societies’ sustainability values and practices and include “learning to be compassionate and respect differences, equality and fairness as the world is increasingly interdependent and inter-connected” (p. 12). It includes a set of worthwhile recommendations followed by a wide range of articles from different national contexts.

  • UNESCO. 2012. Education for sustainable development good practices in early childhood. Paris: UNESCO.

    This contribution to the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD) 2005–2014 provides twelve different examples of programs addressing ESD in early childhood settings and practices from community to governance levels, including formal and informal learning situations, from a wide range of different national contexts.

  • UNESCO. 2015. Rethinking education: Towards a global common good? Paris: UNESCO.

    This report calls attention to the role of education in addressing climate change, a defining challenge of this century. Education for sustainability requires an integrative approach that addresses social, ethical, economic, cultural, civic, environmental, and spiritual dimensions. It draws on neuroscience to affirm the fundamental importance of early childhood education, and its role in addressing such issues.

  • UNESCO. 2017. Education for sustainable development goals: Learning objectives. Paris: UNESCO.

    This report “aims at developing competencies that empower individuals to reflect on their own actions, taking into account their current and future social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts, from a local and a global perspective. Individuals should also be empowered to act in complex situations in a sustainable manner, which may require them to strike out in new directions; and to participate in socio-political processes, moving their societies towards sustainable development” (p. 7).

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