With one in six of the world’s species facing extinction, and more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere than ever before, teaching your little ones how to look after our planet is a big, big deal.
Don’t worry, we understand. With an ever-growing, and arguably never-ending, list of things to think about when planning activities and teaching, it can be overwhelming to add anything else to that list.
But don’t fear. There are plenty of little things you can tweak that will end up making a big difference overall.
It’s a given that the path to a more sustainable Earth will depend on how we educate the next generation. We want children to grow up with an understanding of how to look after the planet, and in turn go on and influence others with their behaviour. The earlier you can teach these core principles, the better.
For this reason, your children’s awareness of the planet and the environment should be promoted through their daily activities, the resources that they use, and the interactions you all have with them.
When done properly, it should become part of the fabric of how you do things, rather than just being a ‘token’ addition to what you’re already doing. But don’t be overwhelmed and get caught up on always initiating this kind of learning; focus on taking your cues from the children.
Take this example:
Let’s say you noticed Harry always throwing his food leftovers in with the normal rubbish rather than the compost. What kind of activities could you do to extend upon this and encourage him to understand the difference between the two?
Be creative – a song, rhyme or game could be used to really instil the difference.
You may have big, grand plans about what you want to achieve in terms of sustainability, but don’t be afraid to start small and low-key. You don’t need to install a wind farm or a self-sufficient organic farm to promote sustainable thinking.
The most important thing you can do is involve the children in as much sustainable practice as you can. Focus on getting them to ask questions and find out their own answers as they take part in both planned and spontaneous activities.
Before diving into our seven ideas for ways you can encourage your children to be more sustainable, it’s important to consider one thing.
Children, as you know, will copy your every move whether you want them too or not. Therefore you need to be conscious of how you are treating the environment around you too. Do you turn the lights off when you leave the staff room? Are you always throwing away plastic drinking straws?
If it becomes the norm that lights are turned off, or that you embrace reusable plastics at your setting, your children will follow suit.
You probably have separate bins for your waste, provided as a service from your local council. But why not go further by getting some kid-sized bins so they can get involved in the sorting? Print pictures and words on them for easy, visual understanding!
Don’t just throw away materials that could be suitable for play. You could collect toilet or kitchen roll cardboard to paint patterns on, for example. Then these same rolls can be used again in an additional activity – why not try making cardboard binoculars with the children?
Really try to avoid disposable, single-use items such as plastic cutlery and straws as much as possible. Teaching children that the materials they use aren’t just something to throw away will make them more mindful when using things in the future.
Registers, reports, learning journals, staff rotas, accident forms, meal logs… it all adds up! Making sure you are environmentally sensitive and sustainable in terms of communication with parents and other key people is a great way to cut the cost of paper for you and its impact on the environment too.
Why not take a minute to consider whether some of your paper-heavy tasks could be handled digitally instead? And when you need to use it, make sure to look out for forest-friendly paper products.
If you are lucky enough to have some green outdoor space, consider cordoning off a section to grow some flowers, fruit or veggies. A little patch should be cheap to make, and you will hopefully make it back in whatever you decide to grow!
If space is limited, don’t stop at pots… tires, colanders, old shoes and teapots make great sustainable flower or vegetable containers. It’s great for children to find different uses for these kinds of everyday items too and see reusing and recycling in practice!
Have a look at growing potatoes, peas, broad beans and runner beans – they’re a good place to start.
Another, perhaps more adventurous, idea to consider is keeping animals. Chickens are low maintenance and are low-cost to keep – and think of all the eggs! Not only good for the environment, keeping animals can promote social and emotional health for your children too.
Where you can, buy in bulk to reduce packaging waste (and save money!). For example, you can look out for recycled aprons and splash mats when you need new ones, and remember to put the old ones to good use too. Try to collect natural materials for play, like feathers, conkers, pine cones, or sticks. Just remember to take only what you need and use them respectfully.
Don’t always feel you have to buy ‘new’ – head to your local charity shop to find some fun and diverse resources. When you do buy new things, try to make sustainable equipment purchases – wooden toys and tables, rather than bad-quality plastic which you’ll have to replace in a few years.
As we found out in our chat with The Curiosity Approach, it’s not just the environment that wins when you ditch the plastic.
With water being such a precious resource, teaching children to use it wisely is vital. Even if you leave a little water tank out in the rain for children to water the plants with at a later date, you are introducing the concept that water can be reused in a sustainable way.
Another key thing to think about is making sure that your little ones know how to flush the toilet properly so that they are not using it as a toy and being wasteful.
Consider organising a second-hand book, toy, and clothing swap for the families at your nursery. Also, consider including sustainability discussions in your newsletters – parents may have some great ideas to contribute and may be inspired themselves.
Provide your families with information on the sustainable practices you are implementing and why – encouraging them to try these ideas at home.
The early years can be the start of a snowball effect. Encouraging a sustainable mindset will carry through to when children head to primary school and onwards.
Not only this, children will take their habits and understanding back home, getting their siblings and parents on board. That is why your role in the early years is so crucial.
By choosing more sustainable practices, children will build their knowledge and values while developing an appreciation of the environment and the way it affects their little worlds. In turn, this is setting the foundations for an environmentally responsible adulthood and a planet that starts to look a lot more secure.
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.