Research Summary

Utilising place-based learning through local contexts to develop agents of change in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability

Place-based learning can help young children develop a sustainability perspective

Education 3-13

A case study approach was used to examine “how young children could develop an education for sustainable mind-set, through place-based learning within a local context.” The research was conducted over a period of a year, involved multiple early childhood settings, and used ethnographic methods of observations, field notes, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews to collect information around the context of place-based learning in early childhood.

The early childhood programs used as case studies for this research reflect different geographical environments and are informed by a range of pedagogical and philosophical approaches.  All, however, are consistent with “action based” place-based learning as a crucial pedagogical practice for early childhood education for sustainability (ECEfS). Most of the case studies reflect a Forest School philosophy with frequent and regular sessions to a natural area over a long period of time. In some cases, the children visit the places every week over the entire year. In other case studies, children spend their entire time in a natural setting. Settings for these case studies included a farm, a beach, a zoo, and an allotment (urban garden). Wherever the “place” was situated, it was understood that “the surrounding community is also part of the contextual interconnecting web of place.”

Children in the majority of the settings showed a growing awareness and love for the place they were attached to. In some cases, this awareness or relational attachment related to both animate and in-animate aspects of their community. “These attachments ranged from sandstone walls, bees, glimpses of giraffes through the window and a feeling of spiritual connection with the earth itself.” Adults, too, became “more aware of local critical issues and related them to their own reality.” The role of the adult in supporting children’s understanding of their world was one of the important themes emerging from the data. Not all practitioners recognized children’s potentials or abilities, and this was noted as a concern in helping children become agents of change in ECEfS. Children in the different settings showed a sense of caring for themselves and others. This ability is recognized as one of the core values of ECEfS and an important aspect of one’s ecological identity. Another core value relates to political activism, which includes reflecting on issues and offering solutions. Children demonstrated this ability in multiple ways. Requesting more “beach bins” for trash, using both sides of paper to conserve trees, and making banners highlighting the importance of bees are just a few examples.

The ECEfS framework around which this research was developed highlights the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social/cultural. This framework also recognizes children’s right and ability to act as agents of change in their communities.

Boyd, D. (2019). Utilising place-based learning through local contexts to develop agents of change in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability. Education 3-13, 47(8), 983-997. doi: