Co-authored by Dr Michele Peden and Bridy Garnon
Understanding the concept of sustainability is complex. Sustainable development can be defined as a “development that meets the needs of the present without comprising the ability of future generations to meet their needs and has three interwoven dimensions: environment, social and economic” (WCED, 1987, p43). As children live in a rapidly changing society, they are observing, learning, and experiencing the intertwined nature of these three dimensions. For example, the environment dimension relates to natural resources, climate change, and disaster prevention. The social dimension includes aspects such as human rights, gender equality, and cultural diversity. Finally, the economic dimension of sustainability refers to poverty reduction and economic inequality within and among individuals and countries (Grindheim et al., 2019; UNESCO 2006).
After-School-Hours-Care (OSHC) services provide ideal learning environments to explore and embed sustainability. The National Quality Standards (NQS) includes environmental sustainability (element 3.2.3) by increasing children’s knowledge and understanding of the environment. Furthermore, the National Learning Framework, My Time Our Place (MTOP), acknowledges the importance of sustainable lifestyles and environments (DEEWR 2019). Education for sustainability requires children and educators to collectively reflect upon our worldviews, protect our environment for future generations, and create an ecological world. It’s about how we currently use our Earth’s available resources and proactively take responsibility for our actions today for a better future. Education for sustainability aims to build and cultivate children and adults’ values and beliefs for a sustainable future across various contexts: home, service, the wider community, and global scale (Elliot et al. 2016).
Nurturing a collaborative, fun, and leisure-based learning environment enables educators and children in OSHC to build knowledge, skills, and confidence around sustainable practices. It encourages children to think critically, innovatively, solution focussed. ‘Children are the future is a well-known quote, but often we are left with the question, “How are children the future?” Sustainability practices led and built by children are how. This generation is the key to a more sustainable future, so why not provide them with the opportunities to learn, implement, teach, and advocate sustainability practices in a fun, playful environment like OSHC. Providing children with opportunities to question, explore, investigate, hypothesize through educational experiences relating to nature and environment, and function with democratic values lays the foundation for deep reflective learning behaviours.
Sustainability is one of those essential skills that we can teach children, who can then change the future for the better. The NSW Educational Standards include those children will learn “about living things, the needs of living things and where food comes from.” and “about the Earth’s place in the universe and about caring for the Earth’s resources.” (NSW Educational Standards 2017). ACECQA also states that “School-age care environments and resources can also emphasise accountability for a sustainable future and promote children’s understanding about their responsibility to care for the environment, day to day and for long term sustainability.” (DEEWR 2011, p16). OSHC services should create opportunities for children to express their ideas and views on sustainability practices and implementing change. The ECA Code of Ethics guides educators to “collaborate with children as global citizens in learning about our responsibilities to the environment and humanity” (ECA, 2006)
Inquiry-based learning enables educators to integrate all sustainability dimensions in an OSHC program. A Big Fat Smile not-for-profit OSHC service in Thirroul NSW has been investigating horticulture by encouraging children to work together to design, plan and grow their own edible and no edible gardens (social/cultural sustainability). Educators and children worked together to restore their vegetable garden, which enabled them to grow their afternoon tea and use the fresh produce in cooking experiences. This aims to reduce food waste, food packaging and provide fresher produce (economic dimension). The OSHC Director sourced a used 2m by 1m raised garden bed for free from a local community member. They also communicated with the General Assistant at the host school and got fresh wood chips donated to mulch the path in the garden. These two examples reduced cost but also are examples of economic sustainability. The OSHC service also applied and received donations from the local Bunnings Warehouse, including potting mix, manure, pavers, sugar cane mulch, children’s garden gloves, and garden tools (social dimension). This is another example of community connections.
Children increased their understanding of what it means to be eco-citizens and agents for environmental change to create a sense of belonging (environment dimension) (Shao et al. 2020). Unpacking concepts of composting waste and using it in the soil to grow new produce, unpack the value in the vegetables (economic sustainability). The collaborative learning experience stimulated positive interactions and connections among educators, children, families, and the wider community and sources from local providers, creating a greater sense of belonging within the OSHC and school community (social/cultural dimension
Educators reflected on the volume of paper consumed within the OSHC program and facilitated conversations around reusing and recycling paper at the service. The service collectively thought laterally about ways to recycle paper, leading to an investigation on how paper is made. Reflections on reduced waste and created the opportunity to learn how paper is made and look at the value of paper differently (economic dimension). “Wow, I didn’t know how long it takes to make paper. Maybe we shouldn’t waste so much”, was a quote from a child that participated in a paper-making experience. Children discover they could make their paper with any colour paper, cardstock, or cardboard.
Educators aim to create a deeper understanding of education for sustainability by moving beyond ‘ticking the sustainability box’’. Children are viewed as active and involved learners who are encouraged to reflect a deeper understanding of sustainability. For example, educators posed the question, “What about good old cling wrap? Asking if it was possible never to use this again. Children discovered that it was possible never to have to use cling wrap again. Children collectively worked together investigated the cost and saving associated with using reusable airtight food containers (social/cultural/economic dimension). They discovered that by making this one-time purchase, you could eliminate cling wrap from their service and, therefore, landfill (environment dimension).
There are many ways to create a sustainable future, and some of the best ideas come from the children themselves. “Why do you use plastic gloves? Plastic is bad for the environment,” said a child during afternoon tea at an OSHC. This question sparked the child’s knowledge and understanding of the services sustainability practices and curiosity. Under the inquiry-based learning model, the service is now trialling disposable, composability gloves as children investigate and document the sustainable impact of this change on their everyday practice.
Children are our future, and we need to listen to them and respect their thoughts, views, and opinions as they have the right to have a voice around such critical matters as education for sustainability. A sustainable world is achievable; listening and teaching children sustainable practices teaches them the importance of human rights and responsibilities they will then take home and carry with them for a lifetime.
Australian Children’s Education & Care Quality Authority Education (ACEQA) (2020). Guide to the national quality framework. Retrieved from https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-09/Guide-to-the-NQF-September-2020.pdf
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2011). My time, our place: Framework for school-age care in Australia. Retrieved from https://www.acecqa.gov.au/sites/default/files/2018-05/my_time_our_place_framework_for_school_age_care_in_australia_0.pdf
Early Childhood Australia (ECA). (2016). Code of Ethics. Canberra, ACT: ECA
Elliott, S., & McCrea, N. (2016). Sustainability is a different way of thinking every day. Examining environmental education in NSW early childhood education services: A literature review with findings from the field.
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UNESCO (2006). United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005–2014, UNESCO. International implementation scheme. Paris, France: UNESCO
WCED, S. W. S. (1987). World commission on environment and development. Our common future, 17(1), 1-91.