Early Childhood Education for Sustainability - Reflections from Downunder

By Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, Australian
Catholic University, Melbourne Campus, Australia

By Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education, AustralianCatholic University, Melbourne Campus, Australia


This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the first early childhood education for sustainability (EfS) professional network established in Australia. It’s timely to reflect in this article on our early beginnings, paradigm shifts and current initiatives. This journey over twenty years may resonate with North American readers who have also been advocating for the inclusion of EfS in early childhood programs for many years. 

Early beginnings

In 1992, Environmental Education in Early Childhood Vic. Inc. (EEEC Vic. Inc.) began as a group of like-minded early childhood educators who identified the importance of environmental education in the early years. At the time environmental education in schools was well promoted, but early childhood services appeared marginalised. It seemed environmental education was perceived by many as not relevant to young children, cognitively beyond their grasp and too dire to explore. Yet, some early childhood practitioners could see much potential. A few early Australian (Elliott & Emmett, 1991; Gordon Community Children’s Centre, 1993) and American publications (Wilson, 1993; 1994) framed around environmental education as promoting knowledge, skills and attitudes in and about the environment provided a basis for practitioners, but underpinning research was almost non-existent. In Australia, ongoing professional development and the establishment of further state-based networks in Queensland (Queensland Early Childhood Sustainability Network, QECSN) and New South Wales (Early Childhood Environmental Education Network, NSW ECEEN) supported some consolidation over the first decade. 

However, by 2003 uptake was still limited and the Patches of Green national review described the green patches of early childhood as ‘exemplary individuals, organisations and centres that share a passion and commitment to the importance of early childhood environmental education' (NSWEPA, 2003, p. 1). Resourcing and research to support broader systemic uptake was firmly advocated in this initial review and reinforced by others (Tilbury, Coleman & Garlick, 2005). In tandem, during these early beginnings the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNICEF, 1989) and reconceptualised images of children as active agents in their own lives and capable and competent learners offered provocation (Cannella, 1997; Edwards, Gandini & Forman, 1993). Developmentally driven deficit images of children that had dominated early childhood for decades were left behind. It was a time of critical rethinking in the early childhood field and as the term EfS replaced environmental education there was an opportunity for new paradigms about how we envisioned EfS in early childhood settings.


Paradigm shifts

This rethinking was further progressed by the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (UNESCO, 2005) which highlighted EfS as education with a transformative agenda. It was about educating for change for a sustainable future, in particular critically reviewing the fundamentals of how we live on the Earth. Davis (2007, online) in Australia firmly linked this transformative agenda to early childhood EfS and advocated that children can be ‘problem seekers, problem solvers and action takers in their own environments’. EfS was no longer just in and about the environment but for the environment and it was more than simply adding another curriculum component or leafy green play experience. Holistic images of young children as active participants and decision-makers in their sociocultural systems with competencies to act for the environment became foundational. Meaningful play-based experiences facilitated by insightful practitioners invited transformative learning and a sense of empowerment.

Further, the UNESCO (2005) and Australian principles of EfS (DEWHA, 2009) are well aligned with new paradigms in early childhood education (Elliott & Davis, 2009). Principles such as holistic approaches, partnerships for change, experiential learning and participatory decision-making fitted comfortably with thinking and practices in early childhood education.

The challenge for educators is to understand the links between their thinking and practices and the principles of EfS and thus, share a transformative journey with young children. All participants in early childhood settings can be agents of change. 

In Australia, these paradigm shifts were further supported by the federal government quality agenda. The first national curriculum Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (DEEWR, 2009) embraces current thinking in early childhood education and offers opportunities for EfS. In particular, a biocentric rather than human-centered interpretation of the key theme Belonging Being and Becoming has significance for EfS (Elliott, 2010). Children are not only Belonging, Being and Becoming in their sociocultural systems, but also Belonging, Being and Becoming with respect to the Earth’s systems. To live sustainably children need opportunities to experience relationships of belonging with nature and construct understandings about the complex dynamic interdependencies between humans and the Earth. Being is fully experiencing the here and now and natural elements offer children sensory-rich opportunities for being in the moment, while Becoming is about a process of change, children becoming active and empowered participants for sustainability in a rapidly changing climate.

Further, the National Quality Standards (ACECQA, 2011) implemented in 2012, specifically include two sustainability standards, thus promoting sustainability as integral to high quality early childhood programs. To assist implementation a new sustainability guide to the National Quality Standards is under development by the NSW ECEEN. The National Quality Standards in parallel with Belonging Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia will facilitate greater systemic uptake of sustainability in services. For those who have advocated for EfS for twenty years, there is now a sense that a major paradigm shift is underway such that EfS is viewed as integral to the program and operation of every early childhood service.


Some current initiatives

In light of the paradigm shifts described above, initiatives for early childhood EfS have emerged from a range of Australian government and professional organisations. Some illustrative examples are outlined below:

 A local government in Victoria, Knox Council, made the first appointment of an early childhood sustainability officer to specifically promote sustainability. Two current projects are KinderGardens for Wildlife and Seedlings for Sustainability. The former involves services developing habitats to support local wildlife, thus improving biodiversity in outdoor playspaces and the latter is a state funded three year project across five councils to engage a range of early childhood service types in sustainability.

  The ECO Centre Hubs professional development program was implemented by Watson and Gaul (NSW ECEEN) across four Sydney local government areas from 2009 to 2010. The program included early childhood centre audits, onsite visits, mentoring, resourcing and a series of workshops and similar regional programs are now beginning in NSW.

  Early Childhood Australia (ECA) is the peak professional early childhood organisation and has proactively supported EfS through publications (Davis & Elliott, 2003; Kinsella, 2007), posters (Moore & Young, 2010) and conferences. Sustainability is a theme at the forthcoming October 2012 ECA conference in Perth, Western Australia.

 The establishment of a research agenda to inform early childhood EfS practice has been a priority for Davis (2010) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). In 2010 she co-established the Transnational Dialogues, an international early childhood EfS research group. An inaugural meeting in Norway provided a foundation for collaborative research and publication and a second meeting held in 2011 in Brisbane, Australia included participants from Australasia, Scandinavia and South-East Asia.



Beyond Australia, key international organisations such as OMEP and UNESCO are now taking an active interest in early childhood EfS. But, the key message here is that although significant change is happening across the early childhood field in Australia, globally we have a long way to go. The UNESCO mid-term review of the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-14 (2009, p. 49) stated ‘in many parts of the world the role of early childhood education in developing and implementing ESD is not always clear and therefore hardly emphasized’. These reflections have clarified the role of early childhood in EfS and I trust will inspire others to act swiftly to embrace EfS in early childhood services.


Sue Elliott is a Senior Lecturer in early childhood education at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne Campus and has experience over many years in diverse early childhood and tertiary settings. She is a long-term advocate of EfS and in particular, natural outdoor playspaces. Sue is a recognised author of several books including Early Childhood Environmental Education: Making It Mainstream, The Outdoor Playspace: Naturally and has recently completed an evaluative study of Westgarth Kindergarten Bush Kinder. She is convenor of the Australian Association for Environmental Education Early Childhood Special Interest Group and has completed doctoral studies investigating sustainable outdoor playspaces at the University of New England, New South Wales.

Australian early childhood education for sustainability organisations

Australian Association for Environmental Education Early Childhood Special Interest Group (AAEE EC SIG).



Environmental Education in Early Childhood (EEEC Vic. Inc.).



New South Wales Early Childhood Environmental Education Network (NSW ECEEN).



Queensland Early Childhood Sustainability Network (QECSN). www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/state_territory_branches/queensland_b...





Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) (2011). Guide to the national standard. Retrieved October 19, 2011 from http://acecqa.gov.au/storage/THREE_Guide_to_the_National_Quality_Standar...

Cannella, G. (1997). Deconstructing early childhood education: Social justice and revolution. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Commonwealth of Australia Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations (DEEWR), (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Canberra: Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations.

Commonwealth of Australia Department of Environment Water Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) (2009). Living sustainably: National action plan. Canberra: Department of Environment Water Heritage and the Arts.

Davis J. (Ed.) (2010). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability. Melbourne: Cambridge Press.

Davis, J. (2007). Climate change and its impact on young children. Early Childhood Australia. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from www.eca.org.au

Davis, J. & Elliott, S. (2003). Early childhood environmental education: Making it mainstream. Watson, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L. & Forman, G. (Eds.) (1993). The hundred languages of children. Greenwich, CN: Ablex.

Elliott, S. (2010). Natural playspaces. Community Child Care Victoria: Early Years. Term 1, 11-14.

Elliott, S. & Davis, J. (2009) Exploring the resistance: An Australian perspective on educating for sustainability in early childhood. International Journal of Early Childhood, 41 (2), pp 65-77.

Elliott, S. & Emmett, S. (1991). Snails live in houses too: Environmental education for the early years. Sydney: Martin Educational.

Gordon Community Children’s Centre (1993). Playing for keeps. Geelong:

             Gordon Technical College.

Kinsella, R. (2007). Greening services practical sustainability. Canberra, ACT:

            Early Childhood Australia.

Moore, D. & Young, T. (2010). Biodiversity the essence of life. Fact sheet and poster. Melbourne: Early Childhood Australia.

NSWEPA (2003). Patches of green: A review of early childhood environmental education. Sydney: NSWEPA.

Tilbury, D., Coleman, V. & Garlick, D. (2005). A national review of environmental education and its contribution to sustainability in Australia: School education. Canberra: Australian Government Department of the Environment & Heritage & Australian Research Institute in Education for Sustainability.

UNESCO (2009). Review of contexts and structures for sustainable development 2009. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO (2005). Decade of education for sustainable development 2005-2014: Draft international implementation scheme. Paris: UNESCO.

UNICEF (1989). United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Retrieved October 30, 2009, from http://www2.ohchr.org/english/law/crc.htm.

Wilson, R. (1993). Fostering a sense of wonder during the early childhood years. Columbus, OH: Greyden Press.

Wilson, R. (Ed.)(1994). Environmental education at the early childhood level. Troy, OH: North American Association for Environmental Education.

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