A research review of early childhood education for sustainability illustrates teachers' differing definitions and changes in practice over time

Hedefalk, M., Almqvist, J., & Ostman, L. (2015). Education for sustainable development in early childhood education: a review of the research literature. Environmental Education Research, 21, 975-990. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2014.971716

The study aims to analyze research related to education for sustainable development (ESD) for early childhood education (ECE) and specifically address three major research questions: how is ESD defined, what are the major inquiries and findings in ESD, and what does the research say about young children acting for change.

Eighty-seven articles met criteria for inclusion in this review, which focused specifically on research on ESD for children up to five years of age published between 1996 and 2013. Two definitions of ESD were identified: a threefold approach to education: in, for and about the environment, and an approach to education that includes three dimensions: economic, social, and environmental.  The “three dimensional approach' definition emphasizes learning how natural systems work, involves direct experiences with nature, and participating actively in making sustainable choices or solving environmental problems. It includes economic, social, and environmental dimensions. This allows sustainability to serve as a context in which issues of interrelatedness can be explored deeply. Both definitions aim to educate children to act for sustainable development, however, the “three dimensional approach” includes other aspects beyond the environment, when teaching about sustainability.

Two research themes emerged in the literature: how teachers understand ESD and how ESD is implemented. Eight articles focused on teachers' understandings of ESD. One understanding promotes the goal of teaching children facts about the environment: environmental issues, nature, and science. It is assumed that an understanding of the facts will lead to changes in behavior. However, the existing research has not shown any long-lasting changes in behavior resulting from this approach. The second understanding is that ESD should explicitly focus on manipulating children's behaviors to encourage pro-environmental behavior. The third understanding is a strategy for educating children to think critically through connecting the environment and society.

Seventy-nine of the articles reviewed explored implementation of ESD, including both the potential of implementation (54 articles), and the performance of implementation (25 articles). Although ESD was previously focused on teaching children facts about the environment, it is now more focused on teaching children to “act for change,” revealing a shift in perceptions of young children as more competent agents of change. The focus of the potential of implementing ESD is on children participating in decisions and problem solving and collaborating in decision making. This approach expects children to consider a range of perspectives and to think about their own beliefs. The performance of implementing ESD focuses on a variety of approaches, including project-based learning based on children's questions and observations.

Twenty-two of the articles highlight the different ways in which children can act for change. Though not substantiated by other research, it is still a common assumption in the literature that teaching children facts about the environment and spending time in green spaces will lead to behavior change. Other research suggests that approaches involving children's direct experience and questions encourages children to think and act critically.

Most of the existing research focuses on the theoretical aspects of ESD. Therefore, the authors call for more empirical research on the teaching and learning of ESD in ECE. Research into children's learning processes through observation is currently scarce, but necessary in order to realize the full potential of ESD in ECE.

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