Research Summary

Making ‘place’ for ecological sustainability in early childhood education

Sense of Place Used as Strategy for Early Childhood Teaching

Environmental Education Research

In Western culture, childhood is often understood as a time of innocence, when children should be sheltered from harsh realities of the world. Topics such as climate change—which emphasize the urgency for behavior change and engagement—can be difficult for early childhood education (ECE) teachers to introduce, because they can bring “reality” into the protected space of childhood. In the first section of this paper, the author explored dominant perspectives about what ECE is and how those perspectives can be detrimental to teaching sustainability. In the second section, she reported on findings from a study where local, place-based teaching strategies were used as a means of teaching about global sustainability issues. She argued that “place” can provide a helpful starting point for teachers to expand from local to regional to global issues, including sustainability.

The author described two dominant perspectives on the role of ECE, which she dubbed technicist and consumerist. Technicist approaches see ECE as a place where young people are prepared for later years of schooling and tend to focus on measurable outcomes. For technicists, watering the garden may appear as wasted time that could be better used to learn the alphabet, for example. Consumerist approaches view ECE as a service that is provided to parents for taking care of their children. For those with this view, minimizing inconvenience for parents is important. For consumerists, a teacher who suggests that students walk to school may be met with hostility, because such an action would require more time of busy parents. The author argued that both the technicist and consumerist ideas about the role of ECE pose significant challenges for teachers. She added that rethinking concepts about childhood and ECE needs to be a critical focus for those researching and implementing environmentally focused teaching strategies.

The findings reported in this paper examined the use of placed-based learning strategies as a means of teaching about both local and global environmental issues. This research was part of a two-year qualitative study of 10 ECE centers across New Zealand, all of which were making efforts to teach from a bicultural—Maori and Western—perspective. The author decided to write about place-based teaching strategies after noticing that these were practices that the teachers were already frequently using. The author used the term place to describe the local physical area, as well as the cultural and political aspects of the region, specifically regarding indigenous knowledge.

One example of a place-based learning strategy the author described was going to a tree-planting event at a local tribal meeting place. This event had multiple learning outcomes, including learning specific knowledge about the local ecology, as well as learning about the indigenous culture through activities such as reading books and eating a traditional feast. The author also described how an activity such as planting trees can be used as a means of connecting local environmental issues (deforestation) with broader environmental issues such as climate change.

The author also described a project in which the teachers focused on recycling as a means of talking about consumption in a broader sense. The teachers did this by asking the children to collect their yogurt containers in the classroom, which they used to make a “yogurt curtain.” The teachers then used this tangible display of their own consumption as a way of talking about plastic as it relates to landfills, pollution of the oceans, use of fossil fuels, and production and recycling in other places, such as Bangladesh.

The Bottom Line

Placed-based learning strategies can be an effective way for ECE teachers to introduce global environmental issues such as climate change. These issues can otherwise be difficult for teachers to bring up because of common conceptions of young children needing to be protected from the “harsh reality” of the world, including global environmental problems.