Promising Practices in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability

Shelburne Farms’ educators, including the Sustainable Schools Project team, have immersed ourselves in reflecting on our early childhood education for sustainability practices over the last year, in preparation for our upcoming new curriculum resource guide Project Seasons for Young Learners with funding from the A. D. Henderson Foundation.  We have drafted this set of Promising Practices  based on our collective work.  We present them to you here, and welcome your feedback.


Promising Practice 1

The curriculum is integrated, and place-based.

An integrated curriculum grounded in one’s place, the local human and natural community is key to Education for Sustainability in early childhood.  In order for children to become citizens who are engaged in creating sustainable communities, they must care for, and understand the interconnectedness of their human and natural community, and world.  To foster this sense of caring and proclivity toward action, children must first be provided with the opportunity to explore and connect to their place, guided by their sense of wonder and curiosity.


Promising Practice 2

Learning and curriculum are play-based and emergent.

Learning is seamless and is led by the child’s sense of wonder, curiosity, and innate ability to construct meaning through play.  The teacher acts as a guide creating opportunities for child-directed discovery, as well as facilitating learning experiences that build on the conversations, play, and questions that emerge from classroom dynamics and adventures. 


Promising Practice 3

Sustainability is a lens.

When decisions need to be made we might ask, “How does sustainability relate to and shape our work?”  Rather than being an add-on, education for sustainability provides an opportunity to use sustainability as a lens through which to vision the entire school or program-- from how decisions are made, to curricular content, to purchasing suppliers, configuration of outdoor play spaces, and connecting with families.  Thinking and decision-making are guided by finding the optimal intersections of environmental integrity, social equity, and economic prosperity.



 Promising Practice 4

The campus and classroom demonstrate and practice sustainability.

Young children learn by doing.  When the campus demonstrates and models sustainability practices, young children innately learn, and thus practice, sustainability.  In early childhood the implicit practices are just as important as the explicit curriculum.   Practices such as classroom composting, reusing supplies, and democratic decision-making in partnership with children all implicitly model sustainability for young learner.


Promising Practice 5

Young children explore their connection to and relationship with the natural and built world through developmentally appropriate Big Ideas of Sustainability.

There are big ideas, or underlying concepts, that are fundamental to understanding and demonstrating sustainability.  In early childhood these Big Ideas of Sustainability are:  cycles, change, fairness, community, diversity, and interdependence. These ideas are integrated into the natural rhythm of and learning that happens in early childhood.  Young children explore these big ideas and their relationship to them through inquiry, play, and exploring their classroom, school, and neighborhood community in relevant and meaningful ways. 


Promising Practice 6

Young children have a voice, make decisions, and draw connections between their choices and the impact on their worlds.

Children need to see themselves as capable, knowledgeable, and participatory citizens.  They need to be given the opportunity to make decisions, share their thinking, advocate for their needs and what’s fair, and problem solve to make a difference.  Young children are capable of understanding and observing change over time, and how they affect their small world through everyday actions and words.  When children are given the opportunity to shape their own world in childhood they will grow to have the ability to shape the larger world of tomorrow. 


Promising Practice 7

Local and cultural perspectives are considered and learned through building healthy relationships with family, classroom, and community. 

Investigating and exploring the local community is key to education for sustainability, especially in early childhood.  Young children need to be connected with their natural and built communities in positive and healthy ways.  They need to explore and experience natural cycles, human diversity, and healthy relationships with others and the environment.  The local human and natural worlds are the context for learning and provide a framework for global comparisons as a child’s world view expands.  Multiple perspectives, respect, tolerance, and diversity are explored as children investigate differences.

Promising Practice 8

Learning is relevant and connected to children’s lives.

Embedding sustainability into the fabric and life of the curriculum and school is essential to developing the attitudes, skills, and knowledge in our children so they can contribute to and build sustainable communities now and into the future.  Our young citizens need to see themselves as a part of their community and need their learning to be reflective of the life they are living.  When we allow the community and students’ interests to guide learning and curriculum, academic achievement and engagement is high. 


Promising Practice 9

Students practice inquiry and open-ended questioning.

Scientific literacy and inquiry is crucial to building sustainable communities.  It is essential for children to develop a healthy attitude towards, and understanding of, the environment. Inquiry is more then just asking questions; inquiry requires the learner to think critically, find and process information, and use that information in real life situations, and regularly engage in reflection—all vital 21st century skills.


Download the Promising Practice in Early Childhood EFS here.

Download the entire Fall 2012 Newsletter here.

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