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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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.