Young children as capable participants and change agents

Elisabeth Barratt-Hacking's picture

It has been great to be part of a new movement dedicated to research-informed practice for early years education with a focus on how early childhood education can contribute to sustainable living. ‘Innovative Approaches to Early Childhood Education for Sustainability in England: case studies from the field’, is a chapter which I co-authored with Robert Barratt and Pat Black published this month. This appears in a cutting edge text which brings together a community of researchers with interests across early childhood and education for sustainability.  An important emphasis of the text is a commitment to viewing young children as citizens, capable participants and change agents in the world. The authors of all contributions work from, or are aligned with, a transformative education paradigm that suggests the socio-constructivist frameworks currently underpinning early childhood education require reframing in light of the social transformations necessary to address humanity’s unsustainable, unjust and unhealthy living patterns.

Through four inspirational case studies of early years’ settings in England we show that effective early years’ education for sustainability can be approached in distinctive ways according to the philosophy, interests and expertise of staff and others in the community, outside agencies and local characteristics. We argue that natural play and other experiences in nature provide foundational experience for young children.  We define natural play as free play experience in the natural environment where the environment stimulates the child to think and behave, as opposed to structured play where adults direct the activity.  We consider wild places, urban green spaces, woodlands, gardens and other ‘green’ spaces as opportunities for young children in any geographical context in England to access the natural environment.

We apply the  metaphor  ‘nature as teacher’ (Webster and Johnson 2008) to show how  if a young child becomes familiar with a natural environment, observing changes over time, they can begin to understand the rhythm and cycle of life; in this way, nature becomes a teacher.  If young children can understand the idea of life cycles and that in nature waste is recycled, this can also help them to understand recycling in the nursery setting, and thus the idea of living more sustainably.  We propose that facilitating other experiences in nature such as making secret dens, building shelters and overnight camping extends the idea of ‘nature as teacher’ by developing skills for sustainability and providing a glimpse of what it means to live sustainably, to depend on what is around you in the environment whilst sustaining it for the future.

Nevertheless, we argue that the case studies are not typical; the ‘schoolification’ (Early Childhood Action 2012) and standards-driven approach to the early years’ curriculum in England is a conceptually narrow response to raising educational standards in the primary years.  This approach undervalues the importance of play that practitioners and researchers in the field acknowledge should be central to any early years’ curriculum. Together with the reduced opportunity for outdoor play in England we contend that this is affecting children’s educational and formative experiences.  We believe that there should be learning opportunities for all young children that offer natural play, time in familiar and unfamiliar environments, experience of participation and models of sustainable living.

Early Childhood Action (2012) Unhurried Pathways: a new framework for early childhood. Winchester: Early Childhood Action. 

Webster, K. and Johnson, C. (2008) Sense and Sustainability: Educating for a low carbon world. TerraPreta.


The chapter blogged about here is:

Barratt, R., Barratt Hacking, E., Black, P. (2014) Innovative Approaches to Early Childhood Education for Sustainability in England: Case studies from the field, in J Davis and S Elliot (eds.) Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability: International perspectives and provocations. Routledge