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

  • Introduction
  • Theme 1: What is Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) and Why It Matters?,
  • Theme 2: Antecedents and Historical Threads Underpinning ECEfS
  • Theme 3: (Re)framing ECE Theories and Curricula through EfS
  • Theme 4: What ECEfS Looks Like in Practice
  • Theme 5: Beyond Children’s Rights in the Anthropocene
  • Theme 6: Growing a Diverse International Field
  • Theme 7: Trends in ECEfS

Education Sustainability in Early Childhood Education
Julie M. Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0292


Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) explores sustainability and its educational responses in Early Childhood Education (ECE). While climate change is at the forefront, broader planetary concerns are also addressed, including biodiversity, food and water security, pandemics, plastic pollution, and growing gaps between rich and poor within and between nations and generations. Sustainability—also known as Sustainable Development (SD)—is often referred to as meeting the needs of current generations without compromising those of future generations. Led by the United Nations (UN) and UNESCO, policy drivers for ECEfS are largely international, with the current focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A contentious concept nevertheless, sustainability at its best is regarded by many as paying attention to all aspects of development—environmental, social, political, and economic. Recently, sustainability concerns have been encapsulated in the term “the Anthropocene,” defined as an epoch from the Industrial Revolution onwards when the impact of humans has become so significant as to dramatically reshape Earth’s ecological systems. There have been increasingly urgent calls for education to play a key role in addressing sustainability concerns. For example, in 1978, the UN called for environmentally-educated teachers to become a key priority because of their potential role in educating societies towards sustainability. Environmental Education (EE) emerged as a response, evolving in the 21st century into what is now known as EfS. An essential characteristic of EfS is that it is transformative, aimed at challenging the status quo. Learning attributes include critical thinking, leading and building community, and action-taking aimed at personal and social transformation. While ECE has been a slow starter in EfS, it is catching up in daycare, kindergarten, and preschools, with corresponding policy and research shifts. This article outlines research across seven themes. The first, Theme 1: What is Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) and Why It Matters?, offers explanations of its importance. The second, Theme 2: Antecedents and Historical Threads Underpinning ECEfS, identifies foundations to ECEfS, especially outdoor and nature play curriculum and learning, as well as children’s rights. The third, (Theme 3: (Re)framing ECE Theories and Curricula through EfS discusses ways of viewing ECEfS curriculum and theories and outlines arguments for moving beyond nature learning. Theme 4: What ECEfS Looks Like in Practice, identifies contemporary ECEfS characteristics and how some international ECE curriculum policies are responding to ECEfS and helping to drive pedagogical change. Theme 5: Beyond Children’s Rights in the Anthropocene, identifes research that challenges humancentric and childcentric worldviews. The sixth theme, Theme 6: Growing a Diverse International Field, considers how ECEfS is expanding internationally through the encouragement of diverse researcher and practitioner networks and the promotion of multiple perspectives on key topics that fall under the broad umbrella of ECEfS. The final theme, Theme 7: Trends in ECEfS, outlines the ongoing evolution of ECEfS as newer theoretical frames and diverse sociocultural influences impact the field.

Theme 1: What is Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) and Why It Matters?,

This theme explores major international drivers for ECEfS and explains why EfS is essential in ECE. ECEfS is early education’s response to global environmental and sustainability challenges. As ECE is concerned with the lives of children, at the broadest level, it seeks to promote an “ethic of care” through its educational practices, with a mandate as the foundation of sustainability (Pramling Samuelsson 2011). A key driver for ECEfS has been the impact of unsustainable lifestyles and global inequalities on children, young people, and generations not yet born. Recently, alarms regarding climate disruptions have come from a diverse range of concerned citizens, nongovernment organizations, and professionals—with climate change effects, however, no longer a future effect. As Currie and Deschênes 2016 write, climate disruptions are already negatively impacting children. However, while climate change is an impetus for ECEfS, it is not its only focus. Issues such as water scarcity, energy consumption, plastic pollution, and habitat destruction have local meaning. Addressing broad social issues such as poverty and gender inequalities also come under the ambit of ECEfS. Sustainability warnings raise major concerns to many in ECE that are being amplified through a range of UN/UNESCO policies and recommendations aimed at addressing environmental and sustainability issues. In the education sector, advocacy for environmentally-educated teachers was proposed as early as 1978 (UNESCO-UNEP 1990). In the 1980s, the Bruntland Report increased interest in EfS (WCED 1987). Perhaps the most significant international policy initiative for ECE and EfS was the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNDESD) (2005–2014). While the focus was largely on schooling, a small band of ECEfS pioneers were working within the UNDESD movement to encourage EE/EfS perspectives to become more widespread and mainstreamed within early years’ education. As identified in the NSW EPA 2003 report, prior to this international initiative, efforts in ECEfS were mostly piecemeal. The DESD gave impetus to “green shoots” that have ultimately become an international movement. The final report from UNESCO (Buckler and Creech 2014), for example, focuses on the expanding impact and opportunities for ECEfS, identifies ongoing gaps, and highlights the further potential of ECEfS investments. ECEfS since the DESD, and more recently through UNESCO 2017 Sustainable Development Goals, has continued to have an increasing profile. As Davis 2015 and Siraj-Blatchford, et al. 2010 discuss, it is becoming an important part of the larger international EfS and ECE movements while ratification by the UN Human Rights Council in 2020 of the right of children to a healthy environment further strengthens ECEfS’s role. Overall, the ECE field has been paralleling, and in some respects leading, the broader EfS field.

  • Buckler, C., and H. Creech. 2014. Shaping the future we want: UN decade of education for sustainable development (2005–2014): Final report. UNESCO Digital Library, UNESCO.

    This UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development report identified significant advances in reorienting education toward the societal goal of learning to live sustainably. For example, this report argued that ECE is foundational for sustainable development and its beginning point. However, it also recognizes ECEfS as fragmented with many ECE educators lacking capacity to incorporate EfS into their activities. These findings give impetus to the ECEfS field to continue to strengthen and grow.

  • Currie, J., and O. Deschênes. 2016. Children and climate change: Introducing the issue. The Future of Children 26.1: 3–9.

    DOI: 10.1353/foc.2015.0000

    This research focused on climate change and its impacts on children, with contributions by economists, scientists, epidemiologists, and others. It provides a compelling argument that today’s children and future generations will bear a disproportionate share of the burden of climate change with negative effects on well-being in multiple ways. It serves to embolden those working in ECEfS to work harder in ECE for children’s well-being now and into the future.

  • Davis, J., ed. 2015. Young children and the environment: Early learning for sustainability. Melbourne, VC: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This textbook, designed to explain ECEfS to early childhood student teachers and practitioners, covers key terms related to sustainability and EfS with international case studies and vignettes on ways that ECEfS might be enacted. A basic premise is that ECEfS should focus on the assumption that young children are already citizens and have the rights to be engaged in matters of concern and interest, including climate change and social justice.

  • NSW EPA. 2003. Patches of green: Early childhood environmental education in Australia: Scope, status and direction. Sydney, NSW: EPA.

    Provided the first overview in Australia of ECEE and is one of the first international reports on ECEE. In the early 2000s, ECEE was only patchily implemented, mostly initiated by committed individuals. This book emphasized the meager number of resources to support environmental education, the lack of consistent policy support, and the need for action at all levels of ECE in order for ECEE to become mainstreamed into early childhood settings.

  • Pramling Samuelsson, I. 2011. Why we should begin early with ESD: The role of early childhood education. International Journal of Early Childhood 43.2: 103–118.

    DOI: 10.1007/s13158-011-0034-x

    In this paper, the author argues against the idea that, while understandable, young children should be sheltered from the problems of the world. The author argues, instead, for Education for Sustainable Development to be both content and a way of working with children in the early years and this this is a matter of democracy, morality, and societal values.

  • Siraj-Blatchford, J., K. C. Smith, and I. Pramling Samuelsson. 2010. Education for sustainable development in the early years. Gothenburg, Sweden: OMEP.

    This book was produced through the World Organization for Early Childhood Education (OMEP), as a summary of key terms and concepts related to ECEfS and why it is necessary in the early years. It presents a range of ECEfS activities developed and distributed through OMEP networks to illustrate broad possibilities for ECEfS across the globe, from nations as diverse as Gambia and Sweden.

  • UNESCO-UNEP. 1990. Environmentally-educated teachers: The priority of priorities? Connect 15.1:1–8.

    This article is pivotal in identifying the role of EE in caring for the environment in its entirety—natural, built, personal, collective, economic, social, cultural, technological, ecological, and esthetic—with specific focus on teachers in this vital process. It outlined a set of competencies for EE, that, forty years later, continue to be relevant and unfortunately, need to be addressed in terms of teacher education, including ECE.

  • UNESCO. 2017 Education for sustainable development goals learning objectives. New York: UNESCO.

    The SDGs address global challenges including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, gender equality, and health through seventeen interconnected Goals. While being critiqued for their anthropocentric aims and pursuit of economic growth while ignoring underlying inequalities in the global economic system, nevertheless, they have a high level of international acceptance. Allied with the goals are a range of strategies for education to assist in addressing these goals.

  • United Nations Human Rights Council. 2022. 44th Session of the Human Rights Council, Annual Day on the Rights of the Child: Realizing the rights of the child through a healthy environment. 1 July 2020. Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

    The UN Human Rights Council adopted this historic Resolution in 2020, incorporating the right to a healthy environment as fundamental to the Rights of the Child. It identifies environmental education as the key enabler for achieving this right. Education is called on to address environmental issues by integrating these into all levels of education to increase understanding and respect for nature and prepare children for future decisions around sustainability.

  • World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. New York: United Nations.

    This report (also known as the Brundtland Report) is considered to be the first major international report using the term “sustainable development.” It sought to establish a “global agenda for change” to deal with interlocking social, economic, political, technological, and environmental crises. The report identifies education as central to addressing sustainability issues. and for EfS to foster a sense of responsibility for the state of the environment.

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