The Famly Interview
Cheryl Hadland on Sustainability in the Early Years

Going green needs to start with the little ones.
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June 24, 2020
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Cheryl Hadland: The 5 key interview takeaways
  • The early years sector has a major responsibility to teach the next generation about the importance of sustainability, and how we can practice it in our daily behaviour.
  • Teaching sustainability to children needs to be positive — don’t get gloomy with what could happen if we keep polluting. Instead, show them ways they can help.
  • When buying sustainable products for your setting, keep an eye out for “greenwashing” — a marketing trick that makes products seem more eco-friendly than they really are.
  • If you’re refitting your setting with sustainable materials, don’t just toss your old stuff if you can help it. Pass it on to a family in your community, or a local charity shop.
  • Whether it’s for staff or children, sustainability needs to be personal. Help your team and your little ones find a personal connection to the environment, and help them care for it in a way that’s most exciting for them.

What does your choice of nappies have to do with a greener future?

Well, if you ask Cheryl Hadland, it’s a lot more important than you might think.

Cheryl is the managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, and the founder of GECCO, a charity that helps the early years sector invest more in sustainability. After nearly 30 years working in day nurseries, Cheryl believes that the sector has a major responsibility in getting the little ones to be better stewards for the environment than those before them. She’s done everything from lobby politicians for more of a sustainability focus in the EYFS, to sorting out how we can be a little greener through our choice of nappies.

I had the chance to sit down and chat with Cheryl at this year’s Nursery World Show, where we talked about her own journey in sustainability, and how settings can work to be more sustainable every day.

You can check out snippets from the interview and read key takeaways below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 15 minute interview.

How did Cheryl get started with sustainability?

Cheryl’s lightbulb moment came to her four years ago, in the middle of a scuba dive. A keen diver, she got to talking with a friend about the shocking amount of plastic waste in the seas, and she realised just how much single-use plastic waste she used in her nurseries. Plastic nappies, disposable aprons, cling film — she worried she might see some of that waste in the ocean on another dive.

This concern fueled her efforts to found GECCO in 2017, which helps to educate children, parents and educators on how to make more sustainable habits in and outside of child care.

What is the early years sector’s responsibility towards environmentalism?

The early years sector has an enormous responsibility to teach sustainability, Cheryl says. It’s one thing to teach children about sustainability in secondary school, and it’s another thing to teach those sustainable habits from the very beginning.

The most important thing, she says, is framing this learning journey in a positive light. Don’t terrify children with predictions of how bad things could get if we don’t act. Instead, show them all the regular, positive things we can do to live a little greener.

How child care settings can get started with sustainability

Around the 5-minute mark, Cheryl talks about the first steps settings can take on their sustainability journey. One big starting point is finding your personal stake in the issue. For her, it was scuba diving — being able to witness firsthand the consequences of plastic pollution in the seas.

Sustainability needs to be personal, for you and your team. It’s not so much about adapting to an entirely new lifestyle, as it is finding ways that you can tweak your current habits and behaviour to be greener. Once you’ve found your personal motivation, you can look for the practical changes in your setting’s everyday operations. In our interview, she listed numerous tweaks: How to trim your electricity use, when to heat your building, and what sort of supplies have an easy green alternative. She points to GECCO, as well as her book, Creating an Eco-Friendly Early Years Setting, as great resources to learn more.

What’s challenging about running an eco-friendly setting?

One of the biggest challenges in running a sustainable setting can be keeping the staff involved. Training staff to practice more environmental advocacy takes time and effort, and with the high turnover rate in the EY sector, you can expect frequent onboardings and refreshers.

Another pitfall Cheryl points to is the practice of “greenwashing” — the marketing practice of pitching a product as sustainable, when it’s really not as beneficial as the advertisements let on. She points to the words “biodegradable” and “bioplastic” as potential red flags.

In the hands of advertisers, she says, those words can mean a lot of different things. Styrofoam is biodegradable, if you give it 500 years. When you’re buying supplies for your sustainable nursery, take the product labels with a grain of salt, and think more about how you’ll use it in your daily practice.

How much do we need to change?

Just about at the 10:45 timestamp, you can get Cheryl’s advice on just how much you need to change, if you’re making some sustainable shifts.
If you’ve already got a furnished setting up and running, you shouldn’t go tossing out your LEGOs just because they’re made of plastic. Keep what you have, and use it for as long as you can, Cheryl recommends.

But if you’re furnishing a new setting, or buying new equipment, here’s your chance to really practice sustainability. Look for products made with sustainably-sourced wood, or buy it secondhand from your local charity shop. Look for LED lightbulbs, and appliances rated for low power usage.

Finally, if you’re getting rid of old toys, furniture or equipment, don’t just toss it in the bin. Give it to a charity shop, or a family in your community — that way, we prevent waste and give our toys and tools a little more life.

How do we get the little ones on board?

So how do we get the children involved in all this? The best way, according to Cheryl, is to take real-world action. Make a day out of going to the park, and picking up a bit of litter (as long as it’s safe). Cheryl also points to the Eco Schools program as a great resource for introducing principles of sustainability to children, and giving them actions to do in the classroom. Learning about environmentalism works best when it starts local. Introduce children to the birds and bugs in their garden, to show them how biodiversity looks in their own surroundings.

Finally, Cheryl reiterates, keep it positive — if you’re frightened, you’ll freeze up and do nothing. It’s about exposing children to the wonder and value of nature in all its forms, and to keep it positive and actionable.

The full Cheryl Hadland interview

Here’s the full interview with Cheryl Hadland, where she and I discuss:

  • How Cheryl’s own sustainability journey came about from a broken boiler and a scuba diving trip.
  • Why it’s so important to teach sustainable behaviours from an early age.
  • How to introduce environmentalism to children in a positive, actionable light.
  • The importance of making environmentalism a personal affair — how you can help your team and your children find their own way to get involved.
  • What challenges to look out for as you make your setting more sustainable.
  • Steps you can take to cut down your monthly bills, and give your setting a greener footprint.
  • The practice of “greenwashing,” and how to avoid falling for it as you buy more eco-friendly products for your provision.
  • What to toss, and what to keep, as you equip your provision with the planet in mind.
  • GECCO, the Eco Schools program, and other resources to guide and inform you as you make your setting more environmentally-friendly.
  • Why children need real-world action to feel empowered in their sustainable steps.

The big ideas

download pdf
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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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