The Adult

Embedding sustainability in the Early Years

June 20, 2022

Make sustainable practices stick, and pave the way for a green future

Make sustainable practices stick, and pave the way for a green future
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In a rush? Here's a quick run-down:

  • Helping children understand sustainability is hugely important, as it's never too early to learn why we need to respect and care for our planet. But how to embed those lessons in our Early Years practice?
  • From having a member of staff as sustainability lead to putting children at the heart of your eco-friendly practices, we've got tips to make sustainability part of your everyday, and explain to children why it matters.
  • Read on for the very first steps to take when assessing your provision, and how to make big, abstract topics of environmentalism relatable to the little ones.

We all know sustainability matters. Saving the planet matters. Protecting our wildlife matters. But sometimes it’s a bit of an abstract idea, especially if you’re three. 

How do you tell little Charlie that the pink plastic straws he wants to use to drink his orange juice will probably end up in the ocean? Probably inside the nose of a turtle, for that matter. Or that his favourite orang-utan has nowhere to live because the forest is being destroyed? 

These are massive topics, and we can’t solve them single-handedly. We can, however, embed sustainable principles at the heart of our Early Years practice. As a practitioner, you have the power to raise a whole generation of green thinkers, and make our planet a better place. All it takes is a few changes here and there.

I’ll go through the first steps to take when you’re assessing how you approach sustainability at your own setting, and give you some handy tips and tricks to get the ball rolling when you’re ready to start making changes. 

Kids spraying plants together

It all starts with you

It goes without saying that it all starts with you. Before talking to the little ones about sustainability  and why it matters, the first step is understanding and practicing it yourself. As how can you help children care when you’re not so sure why it’s important for them to learn?

“You have to practice what you preach,” says Nick Corlett, Sustainability Manager at LEYF. And that’s exactly why you should make all members of staff a part of the conversation. 

With that in mind, let’s look at the first steps to take before you think about what changes you need to make: 

  • “Have someone knowledgeable and passionate as the lead,” says Nick. Let someone who’s passionate and driven about sustainability take charge of the project. The love and care they put into it will be obvious to the children, and it’ll make it easier for the whole team to hop on the bandwagon. And what’s more, they’ll be able to decide where to start. Is it a compost bin? A child-sized recycling centre in the corner? Activities centred around water consumption? They’ll lead the way.
  • Get everyone on board. “You need everyone to be involved in order for it to be an embedded practice,” says Nick. Teamwork is absolutely essential when you’re making changes to your environment and your everyday practices. By communicating and working together, we can avoid practitioners being at odds with what’s best practice. If you’re going to ban single-use plastics, then it needs to be clear that this is a team-wide decision, and everyone needs to understand why it's necessary.
  • Look at your resources. “It’s very important that your environment reflects your ethos,” Nick says. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw everything plastic out the window immediately. Some settings may not be financially able to buy lots of sustainable resources. Nick recommends free sourcing as an excellent alternative. Visit your local tree surgeon, or pick up leaves and branches in the park.
  • Lay the groundwork for eco-conscious decisions. Even though you may not be in a position to purchase sustainable materials immediately, encourage staff to start being mindful of future purchases. If you notice you may need new buckets and spades but aren’t in a position to buy sustainable ones, can you get them from a local charity shop? Donations from parents?

According to Nick, one of the best things to do is to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask your peers, your friends, other settings and the internet. That’s how we learn, so keep on asking!

Person holding a green plant

Make it relatable

Once you've laid the foundation for sustainable practices, here comes the big question - how do you start explaining sustainability to children? It can seem a little daunting, as you don’t want to tell them the planet is burning. That’s definitely not going to do the trick. But relating it to their everyday, their carers and their home life is an excellent place to start. 

“When it’s relatable to them, they’ll be able to understand and pick it up a lot more quickly,” says Nick. And they’ll always relate it back to something they’re familiar with. 

“I’m from Australia, and I talked to the children in my setting about the bush fires happening in Australia. They started turning off all the taps to ‘save water to put out the fire in Nick’s home’.” 

Think about how to make those big, scary topics relatable. If you have a fish tank, for instance, use this as a chance to talk about animals in the ocean and how we currently treat them. Or why them cleaning out the tank is the same concept as respecting and caring for marine life.

Is a child in your setting really excited about sorting things into boxes? Try making a small recycling plant or recycling provocation and embed that interest in sorting with sustainable practices.The opportunities are endless, and it doesn’t take anything fancy.

The big ideas

Sustainable practices in action

Nick has seen first-hand how putting the children at the heart of your decisions has an incredible effect on their learning.

“We were reading Greta and the Giants, a book about Greta Thunberg’s climate activism and saving the planet, when the children decided they needed to put on a mini protest,” says Nick. They weren’t prompted or asked to do so - they took their own initiative, made signs and marched around in small circles wanting to save the trees.

The concept of saving the trees and why it was important was no longer abstract - it was so real to the children that they put on a protest so they could help. This is exactly why your role as a practitioner is so powerful. If they’re making little protests now when they aren’t even five years old, think of how kindly they’ll treat the environment when they grow older.

Top tips for embedding sustainability

If you’re not sure where to start, here are 5 top tips to help kickstart your journey to embedding sustainability and making those green practices stick:

  • Put the children at the heart of it. Have one child be a light monitor to remind everyone to turn the lights off when you leave. Have another be on paper duty to make sure it gets recycled. Making them a part of it not only makes the environmental issues easier for them to understand, but it places them at the heart of helping to drive change, and shows them how important they are in making that happen.
  • Connect with other nurseries. If you have no idea where to start or are out of inspiration, reach out to a setting in your area or online. Have a look round the online Early Years forums for practitioners. “It shouldn’t be nurseries against nurseries,” says Nick. We’ve all got to work together, and sharing our resources with one another benefits the whole planet.
  • Make it a daily practice. Embedding green practices has to be a part of your everyday, as otherwise it might fall by the wayside. Whenever there are food scraps, make sure you have a compost monitor to remind you. The same goes for turning off plugs. Make it a daily ritual.
  • Involve the parents. You already know how important the link between setting and home is when we’re talking about extending a child’s learning, and sustainability is no different. If you ban plastic shoe covers or plastic gloves, tell the parents. Let them know why you’re making a change. Nick finds that parents are often passionate about sustainability, too. And what’s more, they’re another mine of information you can use to enrich your green practices.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. You won’t be perfect from day one, and that’s okay. It’s a journey, and every single change helps. Even if you feel like you’re struggling or aren’t doing enough, you’re trying, and that’s incredibly important.

Girl taking pictures


If you’d like inspiration on how to make your practice greener, we’ve got a whole guide on making your nursery sustainable. Or take a look at 17 ways to make your setting sustainable in line with United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals here.

You are also very welcome to reach out to LEYF directly for sustainability assistance and guidance at green@leyf.org.uk.

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

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

Picture of a Guidance document
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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Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

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“Every time I ask somebody, ‘How is the system going?’, the thing that always come back to me is that staff say ‘You should have done this a long time ago.'" - Neil Leitch, CEO, Early Years Alliance

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Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

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Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

Sign up now

Learn more about Famly

Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

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