Not a day goes by without sustainability in some form appearing in the news. We clutter the seas with plastic, in Ireland we dispose of half a million coffee cups, and flush away 400 million litres of water every day (Kelleher, 2019). The world that we hold in stewardship for future generations is in danger and the question is what difference can we make. I believe that as early childhood educators we can make a significant difference in helping our children to be good citizens, taking responsibility, being agentive, doing the right thing and looking out for one another. These characteristics and actions are at the heart of sustainability.
Sustainability is one of those words that is currently in vogue and can roll easily off the tongue. I like the UN’s description of sustainability, which says that it is about satisfying the needs of the present without adversely affecting the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In other words, what we do today has an impact or knock on effect, for good or ill on the future. Put in these terms, it is imperative that our next generation, those children with us every day, are aware of their power and responsibility in making their immediate community and wider world a better place for all. But where do we start?
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) provides global targets to be achieved by 2030 but the 17 Goals also have a value for us in early childhood. I believe that every day in our settings we can take or make opportunities to highlight, reinforce or introduce concepts that align with the SDGs.
Goal number 1 focuses on ‘no poverty’. Translated to our settings this could simply mean sharing what we have with others, whether it is raising funds through National Pyjama Day or doing a big clear out and bringing toys to the local charity shop. Making space and time for the children to think about and discuss the many ways in which they help others renders their actions and contributions visible.
Goal 6 emphasises the need for clean water and the need to avoid waste. A number of years ago I saw a fantastic educator explain to a young boy why there was no more water to play with in the garden. The setting had installed a rain barrel and the children could merely turn the tap to fill their buckets. But this particular day, they had used up all the water and the barrel was empty. Listening carefully, the children learned about cause and effect, the precious nature of water and the need to conserve.
Goal 10 urges us to reduce inequalities and to challenge discrimination. Of course, this reminds me of Louise Derman-Sparks (1989), who urges us to raise our voices against discrimination and to be advocates in small everyday situations. Creating opportunities for children to have a voice and the confidence to speak up means that we slow down the rhythms and routines within our setting. To build a culture of fairness and equality require us to make space and time available to listen and to provoke thinking.
There are Goals that relate to caring for the land, planting and growing food (Goal 15); that focus on keeping our seas clean (Goal 14) and that get us active in recycling and reusing (Goal 12).
I think the Goals provide good guidance for us, as educators. The SDGs allow us think about the ‘big ideas or targets’ and translate them into meaningful and relevant concepts for the children in our settings. This echoes Bruner (1960), who believes that any child can understand complex information, provided it is introduced simply and revisited over time in greater depth. Taking this local approach to global issues supports children as active citizens who know they can make a difference.
I am arguing for us as ECEC professionals to be intentional in raising awareness within our settings and in helping children to enact their rights. Without a doubt it is worthwhile taking out the sustainable development goals and considering what you and the children in your setting can do to contribute to a stable and fairer future. Let me know how it goes!
Bruner, J. S. (1960). The Process of education. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Derman-Sparks, L and the ABC Taskforce. (1989). Anti-bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children. NAEYC, Washington DC.
Kelleher, L. (2019, January, 13th) 400 million litres of water flushed away every day. Sunday Independent.
For more information on Sustainable Development Goals, please click here.
Marlene McCormack is a lecturer and placement coordinator on the Bachelor of Early Childhood Education in the DCU Institute of Education. Over her time in early childhood she has worn many hats, as playgroup leader, centre manager, director of training, department head in Early Childhood Ireland and always as an advocate for those working directly with children and families. Her current focus is on preparing students for professional practice and her research interests includes pedagogy and documentation.