Education for sustainability and the early years- different sides of the same coin

Glenda Tinney and Eileen Merriman

University of Wales Trinity Saint David, Carmarthen Campus, Carmarthen SA31 3EP;

23rd March 2016


Despite concerns that young children may be unable to engage with the complexity of issues linked to education for sustainable development and global citizenship (ESDGC) and fears that discussing the threats facing humanity may overburden young children (discussed in Tinney, 2014), authors such as Davis and Elliott (2014) and Warwick and Warwick (2015) note that the principles and philosophes inherent in early years pedagogy and practice are closely linked to the underlying ethos of ESDGC.  Furthermore Article 29 of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) highlights that education ‘should encourage a child to respect others, human rights and their own and other cultures. It should also help a child to learn to live peacefully, protect the environment and respect other people’. There is also a growing awareness of ESDGC linked directly to early year’s education which is highlighted by an increase in special additions of journals (see Siraj-Blatchford and Huggins, 2015) reinforcing the opportunities and commonality between the two areas.  However, making these links can be problematic, for example a small scale qualitative research study using both questionnaires and interviews by the School of Early Childhood, UWTSD in 2014 explored the perceptions and interpretations of ESDGC by teacher trainees and those already working within the early years sector and the Foundation Phase (Tinney, 2014). The results highlighted some barriers or challenges perceived by those questioned including that delivering ESDGC was difficult due to a lack of time within the current curriculum, was perceived as an add on or extra subject  and that it was a complex subject which could be too difficult for young children to engage with. 

As a result of such data the School of Early Childhood has developed an approach to exploring ESDGC in a global context as well as in the Welsh context which makes links between early years education, the Foundation Phase (DCELLS, 2008a) and ESDGC (DCELLS, 2008b) in order to develop students own awareness of sustainability issues and to be able to transfer this interest to the young children they work with in the future. To some extent this has required students to deconstruct the meaning of ESDGC and to engage, (as also discussed by Siraj-Blatchford and Huggins, 2015) with sustainability discourse beyond ‘greening and recycling initiatives’. One approach used by the School has responded to The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2014) ESDGC guidance in terms of facilitating students to debate during lectures and to consider different viewpoints and ideas, and to acknowledge the contested and complex nature of sustainability. In doing so, the tutors also support interdisciplinary thinking and develop opportunities for students to make links between environmental, cultural, political and economic issues. This allows students to develop an understanding of how different systems interact with a view to support students to engage with systems thinking which is acknowledged by some ESD authors as a valuable tool when exploring the complexity of sustainable development (for example,  Elliott and Davis, 2014; Davis, 2010). These issues and the development of education for sustainability within the School of Early Years , UWTSD will be evaluated during the presentation.


Davis, J. M. (2010) ‘Early childhood education for sustainability : why it

matters, what it is, and how whole centre action research and systems

thinking can help’.Journal of Action Research Today in Early Childhood (Education for Sustainability in Asia and the Pacific). Special Issue, January, pp. 35-44.

DCELLS (2008a) Framework for Children’s Learning for 3 to 7-year-olds in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

DCELLS (2008b) Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship: A Common Understanding for Schools January 2008. Cardiff: Welsh Assembly Government.

Elliott and Davis (2014) Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: International Perspectives and Provocations. London: Taylor and Francis Ltd.

The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2014) Education for sustainable development: Guidance for UK higher education providers. Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for HigherEducation.

 Siraj-Blatchford and Huggins, V. (2015) Sustainable development in early childhood care and education (SDECCE) Early Education Journal, 76, Summer, pp. 3-5.

Tinney, G. (2014) Perceptions and understanding of Education for Sustainable Development and Global Citizenship (ESDGC) by teachers and teacher trainees and the opportunities and challenges of integrating ESDGC into early childhood learning within the Foundation Phase. MA Early Childhood Research Thesis, Carmarthen, UWTSD.

Warwick, A. and Warwick, P. (2015) ‘Towards a pedagogy of love: sustainability education in the early years’. Early Education Journal, 76, Summer, pp. 6-8.