Starting the Sustainability Conversation in Early Years 

7th October 2021

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It seems a long time ago since I broached the idea of having a panel discussion about sustainability at the Childcare Expo, but I was delighted that it led to a lively debate.

It was clear from the beginning of the conversation that many nurseries are beginning to grapple with the idea of sustainability, i.e., what it is as a concept and how they can rethink their pedagogy and operations within a sustainable lens. Early education is a natural place to begin the conversation about sustainability. We do not have all the answers to sustaining our planet, but we will have greater success if we teach our children about their planet from the earliest age. The question that emerged was how we could begin to make small changes one step at a time.

Our panel, Cheryl Hadland from Tops Nurseries and the Gecco Website and John Siraj Blatchford from Schema Play connected with this by telling their own stories of what and why they got interested in the sustainability agenda and the need to have some skin in the game to promote social change.

Our shared view of sustainability was that it was a triangle made up of economic, social and environmental elements – also known as a triple bottom line among social enterprise organisations such as The London Early Years Foundatio (LEYF). We referenced the United Nations General Assembly (2015) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which identify the 17 goals that will help achieve sustainability. Spot the economic, social and environmental connections.

Cheryl recalled how she started to really think about sustainability when, as a scuba diver, she saw the implication of glitter on fish.  It came as a shock that something which seemed so innocuous in a nursery was damaging fish. She realised that if she did nothing her children and grandchildren would never see the fish life she enjoyed watching. She began a campaign to remove glitter which went viral.

My ‘Damascus moment’ came many years ago when I experienced real unfairness about accessing a good nursery because I was a single parent.  I made up my mind that I would design a model for childcare that would not allow that to happen. Hence the LEYF social enterprise. More recently, I became so horrified by waste and litter that I banned single usage plastic in 2018. Sadly, it is back with a vengeance with the proliferation of PPE, the anxieties of Covid and everything Early Years.

John talked about his dismay in his early career as an engineer when he watched manufacturers build in obsolescence to ensure the customer would need to replace each item after five years. No more Singer sewing machines that would last for many generations!

Since then all three of us have written about our steps towards sustainability.

This is what the audience also wanted to discuss. They wanted reassurance that just addressing only one element (such as recycling waste) was ok. This led to a discussion about other ideas they could do easily such as:

  • Products: Nurseries asking for proof of sustainability via certification and/or warranties.
  • Suppliers: Nurseries asking if the supplier has a sustainability policy that covers the entire supply chain from collecting the stock, storing it and delivering it
  • Delivery: Nurseries reconsidering their attitudes towards next day deliveries (think Amazon). Is it necessary? Can you wait for all ordered items to be delivered at once? Changing your attitude would have wider benefits such as pushing for better employment benefits for drivers who often are expected to deliver under tight time pressures and with a lack of proper stopping services to drop their litter en-route. Cheryl wants delivers by electric vehicles if possible.  She’s a real fan!
  • Resources: Nurseries can think more carefully about where and what they buy. One audience member talked about choosing her loo rolls from Who gives a crap loo rolls
  • Start in the garden and do what Thomas Weaver calls connecting with the poetry of our own back yards. Broadening and enrich children’s skills and knowledge by encouraging them to garden and ‘grow their own’ so they know where vegetables come from.
  • Greenwashing: avoiding companies who don’t tell the real truth or pretend they know the origins of their products but actually don’t

We were all in agreement with the idea of an ecology pedagogy or supporting the circular economy. For example, buying resources from Charity Shops.  We describe this as the 8 Rs in our book.

1.    Reduce Decrease consumption of food wastage, materials and resources.
2. Reuse Use materials many times and for different purposes.
3. Repair Fix things rather than discarding them or repurposing them.
4.    Recycle Be aware of alternatives to discarding rubbish and educating children of the importance and impact they can have through this.
5.    Rot Let things go back to the earth to enrich the next crop of plants while also providing a habitat for many insects and small rodents.
6.    Respect Nurturing understanding of and respect of nature and natural processes and reducing the extent to which they are violated; showing consideration and compassion for people and animals
7.    Reflect The habit / skill of being thoughtful, asking questions and wondering about experiences
8.    Responsibility Being trusted to take care of something or to do something worthwhile – be socially and economically sustainable e.g. fair trade and local markets to promote community wellbeing

Education is a very powerful pathway to sustainability BUT it depends on adults who understand how to integrate sustainability into every element of their leadership, pedagogy and operational practice. Sustainability is not a subject or part of an environmental programme – it is central to the child’s whole experience and needs to be part of a broad and inclusive quality education.

We must therefore build a greater and deeper understanding of sustainability so that each and every one of us becomes a champion and puts words into meaningful action. Our mission now is to develop a regional ECEC Sustainability Network where we can get together and learn from each other. Get in touch.

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