The Contribution of Early Childhood
Education to a Sustainable Society
Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson
Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson
Göteborg University and Chalmers University of Technology, through the joint Centre for
Environment and Sustainability (GMV), are leaders in research and education on sustainable
development. Since 40% of Swedish activities in the topic area were concentrated in this part
of the country, Göteborg became a logical place to host the International Consultation on
Education for Sustainable Development – Learning to change our world – held in 2004. This
conference was introduced by the Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson at the World
Summit in Johannesburg 2002, where leaders of the world realized that education was a main
factor in achieving sustainability. At the end of the Göteborg conference, the vice-chancellors
of the two universities promised to host a follow-up conference within four or five years‟
As preparation for the next international conference, the planning group suggested a
number of smaller international workshops, with the goal of identifying and discussing
promoters and barriers to sustainability and also to suggest possible recommendations for the
coming main conference to adopt. These workshops have been focusing on higher education,
school and teacher education, early childhood education and public and informal learning,
with the following titles and content:
o Drivers and Barriers for Implementing Learning for Sustainable Development in
7-9 december 2005. Organised by: Centre for environment and sustainability in
o Drivers and Barriers for Learning for Sustainable Development in Pre-School, School
and Teacher Education
27-29 mars 2006. Organised by: Göteborg University and City of Göteborg
o The role of early childhood education for a sustainable society
2-4 april 2007. Organised by Göteborg University, City of Göteborg and GMV
o Public Learning for Sustainable Development - Laboratory for Democratic Learning
11-14 october 2007. Organised by: Göteborg Folk High School, Göteborg University
and Chalmers University of Technology, The Museum of World Culture
In the workshop The Role of Early Childhood Education for a Sustainable Society, 35 people
from 16 different countries took part (see list of participants, Appendix I). These participants
brought with them extensive knowledge and competence in the field of early childhood
education, but many were not familiar with its relationship to sustainable development (SD).
Som individuals have been working in both early education and sustainable development, but
for the whole field of early childhood education, its relationship to sustainable development is
not at all known. It is no wonder since SD cannot be exactly defined, and should not be, in as
much as it is an ever evolving concept, said Professor Bo Samuelsson in his introduction to
the workshop. He continued talking about education for sustainable development (ESD) as a
learning process and not a product. He also spoke of the fact that the present trends are far
from sustainable, which makes it much easier to define unsustainable trends rather then
Professor Charles Hopkins, UNESCO chair of the committee on learning for
sustainable development, said in his introduction to the workshop that to his knowledge this
was the first international workshop focusing on young children and learning for a sustainable
development. Workshop participants felt a “sense of urgency” which exhort us all to take
responsibility for making sustainable development a part of early childhood education.
Charles Hopkins took us on a journey around the world and challenged our
perspectives and ways of living. As our planet is changing, also we as human beings have to
change our lives. He asked questions like: “What does it mean to be more instead of having
more? What is enough? or What is for all?” He talked about Gandi‟s expression “need versus
greed”. There are many paths to take, which means that we need to educate citizens to
become well informed, but also to develop citizens with democratic values. He also pointed at
the growing disparity between poor and rich people and the fact that 90 percent of school
children grow up in developmenting countries. The most well educated countries, however,
cause the largest problems related to sustainable development. So, who‟s values, principles,
perspectives and knowledge are going to be listened to?
The Swedish Ombudsman for Children, Lena Nyberg, talked about conditions for
children in Sweden. Her role is to promote the UN convention of the right of the child in
Sweden. She very clearly takes the children‟s perspectives, listens to them and advocates on
their behalf. Listening to children also means to discover children´s problems, for example
that they feel a lack of participation in decision making in school although that is a central
theme in the Swedish curriculum. She also stated that attitudes toward seeing children as
persons with equal rights as audults are more important than laws and money – and that we
should never let children feel guilty about the problems of the world. After half a day of
introductory presentations and individual presentations of each participant the work started,
with four small groups and three different themes.
Theme I: What might Early Childhood Education for sustainability look like?
The discussion here was meant to focus on the work in ECE, that is, on an individual level.
Another way to present it may be children‟s learning and the teachers work. In other words;
what is occurring at an institutional level? Questions to discuss could for example be: How
can sustainable development be understood in ECE in terms of content and methods? What is
relevant to teach in ECE? What are the promoters and barriers, within ECE, for children‟s
learning about sustainable development?
Theme II: Cultural issues related to sustainable development
Here we think of ECE in a broader context, children‟s whole lives – in society and the
family. Organizational questions become of interest. Questions about poverty and wealth can
be discussed, but also gender questions.
This theme may be summarized by the question: What are the cultural barriers and
promoters to working for sustainable development?
Theme III: Policy and research questions related to young children’s lives and sustainable
We are now on a societal level where the policy and research questions are central. Here
teacher education becomes an important matter to consider.
Which are the key questions to be answered – that will influence young children‟s
lives in ECE? Which research questions should be investigated? Notions such as behaviour,
knowledge and awareness – how are these related to ECE? What does empowerment mean in
After an intensive discussion in four groups on each theme, we all came together and shared
our ideas. In the final joint session we created recommendations from the workshop (see page
X). The idea also was proposed that we write to the heads of states of the countries who have
not yet reached the Millennium goals for children. John Siraj-Blatchford took the lead in
writing a draft of a letter that we all signed. The letter was sent to Stephen Harper (Canada),
Nicolas Sarkozy (France), Angela Merkel (Germany), Romano Prodi (Italy), Shinzo Abe
(Japan), Tony Blair (UK), George Bush (USA) (See Appendix II).
What is sustainable development?
Is it then not possible to formulate any definition of sustainable development at all? There
are of course many different definitions and ways in which people perceive sustainable
development (Björneloo, 2007). But let us use a definitionoffered by Helene Bergsten
(Chalmers Annual Report, 2006, p. 31).
Sustainable development is a perspective or a vision rather than a definition
and provides room for many different starting points. One of the more well-
known and widely used definitions of sustainable development comes from the
Brundtland Commission report Our common future from 1987 in which it
defines sustainable development as “development that meets the need of the
present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their
own needs“. Another frequently used text is the UN‟s Millennium Declaration
in which the message is that we must ensure that basic human needs may be
satisfied for all human beings without damaging the life sustaining system of
our planet. A clear common message in the perspectives and definitions
gathered from different international contexts is that the time line encompasses
several generations and that there is always a global perspective. Individual
involvement and responsibility are also integral parts of the concept of
sustainable development. The key principle is that economic, social and
environmental conditions and processes are integrated into a whole, but also
includes opportunities to approach this whole from all different directions.
Summery of the discussion
The group discussions from each of the 3 different themes are summarized and integrated as
follows. The integration is based on the written reports from each group on each theme and on
the discussions that took place when all groups were together reporting to each other. The
actual text below is, however, is the sole responsibility of Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson
Theme 1: What might education for sustainability look like in
The starting point was that Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is not a common
topic in ECE. The reason might be that many teachers see discussion about sustainability as
„doom and gloom‟ - as providing information that is depressing and fearful and therefore
inappropriate for young children, that the issues are just too big, too awesome to do anything
about and should not to be dumped onto young children. A perception that might be extended
within the field, but a perception we however do not at all agree on. The discussion also
focussed on questions and points such as:
Children need to feel that they are a valued part of the community – not invisible,
marginal, or worth-less i. e. should be viewed as legitimate actors in shaping their
communities now (as well as into the future). This means that each child’s meaning and
perspective need to be listened to and considered in education.
ESD must begin in the local concrete reality of the children. This means that although
there are certain general features in this topic, it has to be adapted into the local community.
This is why community involvement is essential. Children are concerned about what they hear
and see, that‟s why real life questions have to be central for the topic of SD. To perceive, to
be involved in experiments and real life projects are key factors for early learning. SD could
also be understood in the light and awareness of unsustainable development! ECE for SD has
to be locally relevant and culturally appropriate, and should be something more than re-
cycling, such as for example is it more appropriate to have a small car or a four while truck in
ESD should lead to new relations to oneself, to others, to the environment and nature.
Multicultural questions are very significant here. SD must include the opinions of minority
groups and their participation, and by that striving for integrated societies which is the
opposite to a segregated society we today see in different parts of the world. Diversity is one
theme that the groups returned to many times and on several aspects in the discussion about
internationalization and globalization which has to begin in ECE. Children of today have to
develop both strong cultural identities and a sense of themselves as world citizens. Emotional
commitments are taken early in life, and should be supported by ECE.
Democracy in terms of values and attitudes is of major concern in early education.
Children are already „little consumers‟ who have to be questioned early. The discussion of
trends and branded products of cloths and toy could be discussed with children, to challenge
over-consumption. This is also for developing solidarity and cooperation with others, as well
as respect for others and for diversity – all of which are of importance for SD. Demoracy has
to be both taught and lived and experienced!
Environment studies and experiences of nature are important for children to develop a
sense of care and concern for the natural environment, for non-human species, for resources
such as water, soil etc. But children can also learn about other peoples‟ living conditions, and
by that get a feeling of their own lives in relations to others‟ lives. A lot of work is carried out
as out-door activities in many countries, which might be a good start for making children
aware of SD even though it is not enough.
There is a great deal in the history of early childhood education that aligns with
education for sustainability e. g. integrated curriculum approaches (interdisciplinary), holism,
outdoor play and learning, creating a sense of community, social justice etc. We do not have
to create entirely „new‟ pedagogies in order to „do‟ education for sustainability. There is a
tradition that could be built upon at the same time as it has to be renewed in terms of thinking
about the content and to work goal directed in early years. It is important to raise the question
of what the content in ECE should be and also what the objectives have to be for fostering
children for a life in SD. We were also all convinced (from research) that it is not the
traditional school subjects and ways of teaching knowledge that has the best effect on
The work in ECE must be intellectual, that is, challenging children’s thinking and
acting and not abstract, as is common in many countries, that is, teaching children to read and
write too early and to formally. Instead of talking about the 3Rs (reading, writing and
arithmetic) someone suggested the notions at Chicago airport: 4Rs reduce, reuse, recycle,
respect, and the group quickly added repair, reflect and refuse! – So now we have 7Rs for
Support for families is crucial for children‟s upbringing. Families play a central role in
ESD since they are their child‟s fist teachers laying the ground for further learning and
interest. Therefore sometimes it is a question of parental education to get them to understand
that they do not help their child by pushing them to become literate as early as possible! We
however also know from research that children‟s experience, in ECE influences the families
behaviour, attitudes etc. to SD.
ECE has a vital role in promoting awareness, good habits and caring attitudes, which
can promote SD. But it is not possible for each teacher to decide what the content to work
with could be for promoting awareness for sustainable development. Here we have seen that
economy, environment and socio-cultural questions are to be dealt with and integrated into a
wholeness and a comprehensive curriculum.
There was also a discussion about how to promote children to become
technologically/scientifically literate and how technology and science can be an avenue for
working with young children on concepts related to „appropriateness,‟ that is what is
appropriate in the local society and why do people have a lot of things that are not
appropriate. These are questions that can turn children‟s awareness towards value questions
and their relationship to sustainability.
In working globally with SD, curricula in different countries have very clearly to be
strengthened on this topic. The approach to work on it must be integration between care, play
and learning – that is to see the competent child, an active child who creates meaning and has
ideas. The child, however becomes as competent as their environment gives them experiences
and challenges to become!
ECE is all about children‟s activities as both hands on and minds on, that is for sure
that children have to work with concrete situations or objects. The approach to pedagogy
must be one in which there is room for children‟s reflections and teachers that challenge their
understanding of different questions, tasks, etc. We also agreed that what is common for all
children of the world is play, something which should be taken into consideration in ECE and
Theme 2: Cultural issues related to sustainable development
An important topic became discussion on a 20-year longitudinal study in the UK “A Child of
Our Times‟. This revealed that racial stereotypes are learned early and that our cultures teach
stereotyping. Children are able to pick up early, cultural messages about wealth and inequality
e. g, through representations of objects in the society, from a very early age.
Disproportional - the excessive wide gap between wealth and poverty contributes to
strong motivation to attain wealth at the expense of the future of our environment. There is a
need to problematise concepts, i. e. best does not necessarily equal appropriate. The
development and use of technologies are part of our cultural framework - appropriate
technologies offer pathways out of poverty and towards SD. Should we all go back to basics
living and life was a question asked. We also stated that not all traditions and customs must be
kept! We need to think critically about our traditions and , customs and identify harmful ones,
and think of how these can be changed.
Teacher training is central in the future development of ESD in early childhood.
Education for teachers also has a role in challenging ideas about scientific and technological
development. Critical teacher education is essential and a key factor for ECE and SD. This
means that we have to question the taken for granted values and beliefs in ECE. How, for
example, do we. look at values related to gender in ECE. The status for teachers working
with the youngest in our society is a central question. It became a paradox that the teachers
who have the strongest power to influence children in the early years are the one‟s who have
the lowest status. The balance between hands-on experiences versus academic skills were
discussed vividly. Early childhood education needs to be re-conceptualised for new and
challenging times, but this means taking the best of past theories/practices and rebuilding into
Early childhood services have the potential to create, within their own communities,
those characteristics that we want for sustainable development – e. g. wise use of resources,
culturally diverse communities, gender equality etc. But once again it is important to have a
critical view on what is worth saving from old traditions and what is worth developing from
the present times of the new world.
It is important that education for sustainability works towards encouraging and
supporting cultural diversity also in teacher education, i. e. There is a need to focus on human
issues as well as ecological issues. We all need to learn to live with diversity and complexity,
and education - including early childhood education - needs to reflect on this and discover its
Language, also become a key question of ESD. We need „learning and
communication‟ pedagogies – not transmission of static knowledge. Here language becomes
an important tool and a key question. Often, children‟s parents are not familiar with the
language spoken in ECE, and it become extremely important for children to both develop
their mother tongue and the language of the culture, since language is a question of being a
member of the club!
Need to strengthen intergenerational links with regard to education for sustainability.
In all societies the relations between generations are important for children. The participants
from Africa pointed out here a lot of misconceptions about African societies where it is not
longer so that the old generation take care of the young children. All adult generations work,
so the mothers have to bring their children with them to work, since there is no day-care
The unequal gap between rich and poor countries is an important topic to consider. In
many countries day-care centers and kindergartens have high fees, which make many families
unable to afford their children’s participation in ECE. So the finance of ECE is a main
question for modern societies.
ECE has to be seen as a path to primary school for many children! This is where the
interest of curiosity and engagement for SD could be laid. Also ECE has to be viewed as the
first step in the education system for children. And it is a key question for SD that all children
– boys as well as girls – get an early as well as elementary education!
Theme 3: Policy and research questions related to young
children’s lives and sustainable development
There is an urgent need to allocate more resources for ECE, since most societies are going
through dramatic social changes. It becomes obvious that each society has to take a larger
responsibility for its children. Therefore there should be ECE available for all children
(availability) in all countries, as the first step in the education system! But an ECE where
play, care and learning constitute the wholeness are integrated. It is however not only a
question of education in general, but a high quality education which requires well-educated
Potential research for the ECE field is wide open – there is so little research that we
need a lot of „catch up‟ in all areas if we wish to expand the field of early childhood education
for sustainability and to have this built on an evidenced-based platform:
o Urgent need for a whole range of case studies of exemplary practice in ESD to
stimulate and challenge others
o Perhaps gather life-stories from „famous people‟ about their early childhood
experiences and how these might have shaped their ideas/values ESD with
regards to sustainability issues e. g. Al Gore
o Need longitudinal studies to show the impacts and benefits of ESD
o Need for comparative studies of children‟s and teachers‟ attitudes towards
o Research into children‟s participation in sustainability projects
o Research into early childhood teachers‟ conceptions of sustainability and what
they need to know
We also discussed the fact that some of the richest countries do not live up to the Millennium
goals for children. That is why we decided to write a letter from the workshop group in
support of Millennium goals, which also was done!
We have to work on advocacy for bringing up statements about the potential role of
early childhood education in sustainable development in various situations we all are involved
We should also explore ideas around civil responsibility as well as civil rights –
perhaps a document with ethical statutes has to be developed.
One could consider making a „virtual‟ video about ESD and young children to be
freely downloaded and forwarded via the internet.
Networking together with many different organisations, is crucial for ESD. One could
consider working through organizations such as OMEP (Organisation Mondiale pour
l´Educasion Prescolare) to build international support for ESD, but also to have a special issue
in OMEP‟s scientific journal, International Journal of Early Childhood devoted to ESD as a
way of supporting and extending research in the area. Networking, of all kinds is welcome in
this area. OMEP is one NGO that is important, but it could be others like NAEYC (National
Association for Education of Young Children), Global Aliance etc. In relation to this it was
also suggested that there should be awards and prizes to stimulate new ideas in the work
related to SD with very young children.
Researchers must become better at communicating their results in different ways to
professionals, media, politicians. Someone also informed us about a group of journalists in
Brazil calling themselves, Friends of children and were specialised at writing about topics
related to children.
We need a dissemination of information about good practices to get teachers to begin
to think about ESD and see how they can use their every day work also for SD. This can be
done on the internet, but also in local conferences and workshops.
There is a need to strengthen the field of early childhood overall, with teacher
education as one of the significant issues. Some countries do not have early childhood
teachers or specialised services at all; they need to work to improve these conditions and to
strengthen services to families - and especially mothers - as baseline support for young
Finally, there was a discussion about the fact that there are things that are good for
sustainability and things that are bad, and we need to distinguish what is good for
sustainability and what is against it. Maybe we can find help for this clarifying these
distinctions from specialists in fields like: philosophy, science, history, and religion etc.
SD should be considered as a policy question when curricula or guidelines are
developed in different cultures. Here should also new models and approaches be
experimented with and utilized! But maybe the most important thing is to raise teachers’
awareness about ESD, This is a job that has to be done both as in-service training and at the
pre-service teacher education level. High quality teacher education has to be a priority in all
cultures. It is as important to have highly educated teachers working with the youngest
children as it is to have educated teacher working with teenagers. The status of ECE and their
staff must be raised!
Finances and priorities become key issues for developing a day-care and preschool
system that gives all children the possibilities of a good start in life and,right from their first
years in education, to experience questions on their own levels about SD in terms of
environmental, economical and socio cultural issues (see below)
What we all felt in the end of the workshop was that by making people talk about SD
and young children we begin and enhance understanding of what SD could be and focus on
the importance of developing new knowledge and strategies! The research questions become
Someone also said: Children have dreams, listen to them and learn!
In summary, I want to say that just as SD is a phenomenon where one has to use an
integration of knowledge from different fields, the discussion become integrated and
impossible to separate completely into the three themes. Just like teacher education is a
cultural phenomenon, showing cultural values, it is also a policy question, that is, a question
of whether or not to provide financial support to teacher education. In the same way a lot of
questions could be related to two or more different themes.
Another way to look at the summery of the discussion was suggested by John Siraj-
Blatachford. It takes the starting point from the three pillars of ESD, that is, economy,
environment and socio-cultural questionsThe delegates agreed that Early Childhood
Education for Sustainable Development could be applied to each of the commonly accepted
„pillars‟ of sustainable development and that a few early years educators were already doing
excellent project work in each of these areas:
A key priority was therefore to collect together, disseminate and share case studies from
different coutures and context. A number of core features of work in each of these broad areas
were identified in the workshops and are reported here under each heading:
The delegates found it useful to distinguish here between the more macro structural issues of
sustainability in Early Childhood Education and those issues related to curriculum and
pedagogy. Sustainable development in some poorer countries of the world must be concerned
at first with children‟s survival in the early years and then with their access to early childhood
education before considering the issue of the most appropriate curriculum. At a more (micro)
playroom level a number of activities were discussed that involved children in the
consideration of economic issues related to their own lives e.g. in educating them as critical
consumers of toys, sweets, clothing etc.
Early childhood education around the world has often included a strong emphasis on
environmental education and this was an area that was seen to be an area relatively easily
strengthened to provide an education for sustainable development. Delegates were clear
however that environmental education for sustainable development went something more than
simply taking children outdoors to appreciate or discover the beauty of nature for themselves.
Some appropriate intellectual engagement or dialogue with the children regarding
sustainability was also needed.
Delegates were convinced that sustainable development required an ethos of compassion,
respect for difference, equality and fairness and that a great deal more needed to be done to
educate young children in our ever more multi-cultural, interconnected and interdependent
world. Values and attitude as part of democracy are here central!