Research Summary

Pre-school children’s agency in learning for sustainable development

Fostering Young Children’s Agency through Sustainability Education

Environmental Education Research

Young children have great potential to act as agents of change and contribute to long-term sustainability. Research to date has demonstrated that children’s new ideas and solutions can reach other members of society through sharing with families. Children have the ability to initiate and participate in developing solutions to environmental problems; this has been discussed in a variety of contexts, including early childhood education for sustainability. Little is known, however, about what constitutes agency in early childhood education. In other words, what is it that makes children feel capable and able to take action with regard to sustainability issues? This study investigated what occurred when preschool-aged children faced a given problem and proposed solutions in the context of sustainability. The paper outlines a methodology for analyzing how children establish agency in formal preschool settings and describes a process that may be applicable to other types of learning experiences in sustainability education.

The researchers analyzed two experiences related to sustainability using video recordings made at a preschool in Sweden. The preschool has a pedagogical profile that focuses on the environment and sustainability and incorporates outside learning into its daily schedule. The videos recorded activities that were typical of the school’s approach to learning about and engaging in sustainability issues. In total, the researchers analyzed 30 hours of video footage. The teacher had the intent of creating experiences related to sustainability by bringing the students outside and helping focus their attention on the world around them. The teacher encouraged the students to discover their own questions and challenges involving the natural 34 world. The researchers focused on two scenarios that unfolded: pea plants facing impending rain and a bird’s nest disturbed by the sounds of nearby construction. The children in the study were 4- and 5-year-olds with “lively and wordy” verbal communication.

The researchers specifically assessed how children anticipated a sustainability problem, what choices they made in a course of action, and how the process was closed and fulfilled. The authors acknowledged many different dimensions of agency, such as connectedness, engaging with the environment, questioning, belief in capacity, taking a stance, and strategic action. Given these many dimensions, the authors chose to focus on children’s connectedness to and engagement with the environment. Children’s connectedness refers to how children relate to their surroundings in an emotional and spontaneous way. Engagement with the environment involves how children learn in and about the environment.

Examining how two small groups of students moved through each of these issues independently, the researchers drew upon the work of philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (1859–1952). Dewey argued that experience is interwoven continuously in the living process, and people achieve change through a variety of experiences. His notions of experience became known as his principle of continuity, where something is always carried over from one experience to the next. Every new encounter in the world involves actions and readjustments; from that viewpoint, agency emerges in the process. Continuity emphasizes that there is always a purpose attached to an activity.

Dewey described three key aspects to every experience of continuity: anticipation (a beginning); course of action (a development built on choices); and fulfillment (a closure when the purpose of the activity has been achieved). Through this framework, the researchers analyzed the verbal and nonverbal actions of the students in four stages: (1) discerning a problem by negative anticipations; (2) negotiations of choices to solve a problem; (3) negotiations turning into physical action to solve a problem; and (4) improved activities and/or fulfillment. They used a type of analysis developed by other researchers—practical epistemological analysis—to discern how meaning was established between the students and their environment.

In the garden, two students (called by their pseudonyms Emma and Sara; all student names in this study are pseudonyms) quickly identified the rain as a potential threat to the pea plants. Together, the girls expressed a negative anticipation when they figured out the potential problem. Sara and Jonas, the third student in their group, then related what they were experiencing to what they had seen on television about plants that die. Instead of giving new directions or suggestions, the teacher directed her attention to the students’ self-identified focus, and offered subtle agreement with their anticipation as to whether the plant would be destroyed by the rain. The group of students moved into problem-solving mode, with Sara first suggesting that they should build a shelter for the plant. Together, they began to draw possible structures that could protect the plants. The group moved into an iterative process where they negotiated choices (e.g., use of glass, wood, or a net for the structure) and became increasingly active through the problem-solving mode by acquiring more suitable supplies for the drawings and surveying materials at a nearby woodpile. From the course of action, they moved through a process toward fulfillment, as they settled together on an effective design. “This is really nice; we did it!” said Sara, establishing a positive aesthetic relation with their creation.

The researchers argue that all of the objects (such as the pea plants, boards, shed, drawing tools, woodpile, and net) and subjects (the children and the teacher) were involved in and connected within an open-ended process that involves student-led courses of action and subtle teacher approval that mirrors the approval of the students. A similar trajectory (i.e., problem anticipation, course of action, and fulfillment) unfolded when dealing with the bird’s nest issue.

In both examples, the young children self-identified a sustainability issue that they cared about in the local garden and worked together to solve the problem by themselves. This type of learning experience enables students to enact agency with regard to solving environmental problems. This process facilitated students connecting and engaging with each other, the issue, and the environment across multiple scales—from the plant level to the broader surrounding environment—to foster key dimensions of agency.

The Bottom Line

Students discover their sense of agency when they are allowed to identify a sustainability issue they care about, explore the problem, and discover both their individual and collective abilities to create solutions. Teachers can help foster these experiences by providing the learning setting for students to discover sustainability issues in their local environment and stepping out of the way to allow students to move through a problem-solving process. Teachers can positively reinforce the sustainability relevance of the issue identified and use other positive value judgments throughout the process to encourage the students’ course of action. These types of activities can be used in sustainability education by taking students outside, working in a garden, or directing the attention toward other sustainability-related issues.