Sustainability in Childcare; 5 easy tips

Sustainability in Childcare doesn’t have to be difficult! Here are my top 5 tips to ensure sustainable practices are embedded, are achievable for everyone involved and ensures children are educated in an easy way as to how to best take care of their environment.

Introduction to Sustainability in Childcare

It is not only easy, but it can be incredibly fun and rewarding including sustainable practices and education about caring for the environment into educational programs in daycare. The National Quality Standards state that daycare services need to include children in education about their natural environment;

Element 3.2.1: ‘Outdoor and indoor spaces are organised and adapted to support every child’s participation and to engage every child in quality experiences in both built and natural environments.’

Element 3.2.3: ‘The service cares for the environment and supports children to become environmentally responsible.’

After working in early childhood services for more than 20 years, I have included many varied, educational and creative experiences to teach children about how to care for their natural environment and how small, everyday practices can help us to take care of the planet.

Sustainability in Childcare
Children love watering plants!

Here are 5 ways I have incorporated sustainable practices in childcare;

Planting, Growing and Watering

Children are curious by nature and are constantly using their senses to explore and make sense of the world around them. Planting seeds for herbs or veggies, watering them, watching them emerge as seedlings, planting them in pots or in the ground, continuing to water them, observing how they are growing and changing, and then harvesting them to eat as a group is such a valuable learning opportunity for the children as well as the educators, and children will love watching and being involved in this whole process.

The Early Years Learning Framework Outcome 2 states ‘Children become socially responsible and show respect for the environment.’ It is vital that daycare services include these kinds of practices in their learning programs to be meeting important learning outcomes.

You could use the following ideas to get more engagement from children;

  • Allow the children to choose which herbs or vegetables they might like to grow, giving them a choice of ones which may have more chance of success, such as mint, basil, chives, carrots, snow peas or beans just to name a few with which I have had a lot of success.
  • Get some child size watering cans so that they can fill them themselves, as well as hold and water the plants themselves. They will enjoy the sense of responsibility, as well as the sensory aspect of it.
  • Show the children the various parts of the plant such as the seeds, stem, leaves and roots and you could even let them take photos of the growing process using a real camera. Children could be encouraged to draw or paint pictures of what they have observed.
  • Allow children to dig, to feel the dirt in their fingers, ensuring you are careful with the safety aspect of breathing in micro particles that can be contained in potting mix. Make sure you always read the safety warnings on bags of potting mix when first opening and wear masks if possible, or ensure the dirt is damp. Let the children gently handle the seeds, seedlings and any produce you harvest. They will enjoy washing them too, before it is to be prepared for consuming.
  • Include any harvested produce in meal times with the children, reminding them of the entire growing process, pointing out the health benefits of growing and eating fresh foods, and then either eat them raw, with educators modelling healthy eating practices with the children, or include the produce in a cooking experience as part of a recipe. Children are more likely to consume something they have been involved in growing, washing or cooking.
Sustainability in Childcare
Planting seeds and watching them grow
Sustainability in Childcare
Getting children involved in digging and planting
Sustainability in Childcare
Harvesting our own mini carrots!

‘Energy Officer’

Children love to be given a bit of responsibility and so delegating something simple to them such as turning the lights off when not in use, or the computers, or turning taps off in the bathroom if they are dripping, or putting used papers in the recycling bin, will be a welcome responsible task.

Sustainability in Childcare
Do the lights really need to be on?

You can make lanyards with tags labelled ‘Energy Officer’, ‘Water Officer’, ‘Recycling Officer’ or simply an all round ‘Sustainability Officer’ and allow them to wear it proudly for the day, indicating they are the one ‘in charge’ of that task for the day.

Tasks can be varied and obviously you can make a big deal about the privilege of wearing the lanyard and being the person responsible. Children will pick up on why those tasks are so important and the act of being in charge will reinforce those concepts.

For educators, you can ensure lights in foyers, staffrooms and hallways are turned out when not in use, or in the middle of the day, hang washed clothing, sheets or teatowels on racks in the sun to dry rather than using the tumble dryer, and reduce air conditioning use by making use of open windows, doors and fresh air flow.

Recycling

Recycling can be such a huge part of sustainability in childcare and it’s also a great way to get some family and community involvement in your program and practices. Families and children can be involved in bringing in items from home to be recycled; items can be used for educational experiences such as art and craft, sorting, STEM activities and construction.

Sustainability in Childcare
Sorting recycled coloured plastic lids as a maths activity

Items within the childcare centre can also be recycled – kitchen containers, scrap paper for drawing, newspapers for craft, jars, boxes and even kitchen scraps can be used to place into a compost. The compost bin can be added to with fruit and veggie scraps, shredded paper, grass clippings, leaves, tea bags, coffee grounds, eggshells and other garden matter. CleanUp.org.au have some great advice on composting and worm farms and what might suit different environments. You can also ask your local council for information on workshops related to composting, worm farming and sustainability. They often run FREE programs which can teach educators or anyone on how to set this up.

Putting different coloured bins into classrooms helps to teach children about separating rubbish from recycling. They can be taught what goes in each bin and be encouraged to ask educators before putting something in the bin to ensure it goes in the correct one.

Care for Kids.com.au also have some great ideas for reducing waste in early childhood services.

Water Saving

Just as I mentioned the ‘Energy Officer’, you can also delegate a ‘Water Officer’ or simply get all children involved in awareness of saving water and not wasting it. You can encourage children to use the half flush on the toilet when appropriate (as early as when they are toilet training), only using taps while washing hands and ensuring they are turned off properly.

Leftover water from cups or jugs can get poured onto the garden rather than down the sink and when children are involved in water play, ensure this too goes back into the garden.

Make sure plants are watered in the mornings and afternoons, rather than in the hottest part of the day, and always use watering cans or a hose with a trigger nozzle, rather than wasting water from the hose. Children will love being involved in filling and emptying watering cans; it combines a sense of responsibility and ownership over caring for their immediate environment with the sensory experience of water play and exploring sensory learning.

For educators, you can ensure the washing machine is only put on when full, that taps are not left on unnecessarily and any excess water goes into gardens rather than down the drain.

Sustainability in Childcare
Turning taps off when not in use

Natural Resources

There are many natural resources that can be used in childcare rather than using plastic items, for craft, art, storage and other educational experiences.

As seen below, there are many natural materials you can use for art and craft experiences; think leaves, flowers, fruit peel, stones, twigs, feathers, pine cones, seed pods, large bark pieces, the list is endless. These can be used rather than buying more paintbrushes or other materials. Recycled items can also be used for art and craft such as egg cartons, cardboard boxes of various sizes, cardboard tubes, plastic bottles, lids, old magazines for cutting and pasting etc etc etc.

Sustainability in Childcare
Using carrot tops, stones, pine cones and twigs for painting experiences

Another great trick is to ask your local supermarket what they are doing with the fresh flowers they can’t sell! When I approached my local supermarket to ask the produce manager if we could possibly take some of the fresh flowers they couldn’t sell, they were more than happy to oblige!

We now have an arrangement where they allow us to come twice per week and fill up a trolley with beautiful fresh flowers that were going to end up in the skip bin out the back! Most of the time, these bunches of flowers that are given to us only have a couple of wilted flowers in a whole bunch, which means they can’t sell that bunch, but we take out those ones and the rest is still incredibly fresh! This is a great community involvement idea and means the flowers don’t end up going into landfill! The flowers are used at our early learning centre for art and craft experiences, to make a ‘flower shop’ in the dramatic play corner, to put on display in the foyer, and when they are too shrivelled and dying, they get cup up and added to our compost bin! Win Win!

Sustainability in Childcare
FREE supermarket flowers

FAQ’s

What does sustainability mean in childcare?

Sustainability in childcare refers to the education of children surrounding caring for the environment, learning about how we can save energy, water and resources so that we do not destroy the planet. It involves all stakeholders and there are many possible ways we can implement this important education.

What is sustainability in early childhood education?

Teaching sustainable practices in early childhood helps to lay the foundation for a future of prioritising environmental awareness and conservation. Taking responsibility for these practices in early childhood helps to reinforce these concepts and means they can become habitual rather than a novelty.

How do you explain sustainability to a child?

Understanding the concept of sustainability will come from involving children in relevant activities rather than just explaining. As the activities or practices are current and relevant to them, you can use these activities to form the basis for scaffolded learning or further questioning and investigation. For example, “Ok Johnny, if you can’t finish that cup of water, do you think it would be best to pour it down the drain or put somewhere else it could be used (such as the garden).”

ECEEN.org.au (Early Childhood Environmental Education Network) have some great resources, training and events to help educators with the knowledge and resources they may need to put this education into place.

What are sustainable activities?

Sustainable activities are those which help to care for our environment, which save resources such as energy, water and other resources and which also act to create a greener future for the planet. This can involve activities such as the ones I have listed above; gardening, recycling, saving water and energy in various ways and caring for the resources we have. In childcare, it aims to reduce our environmental footprint, as well as educate our youngest generation about how they can care for their environment too and make a real difference now, as well as into their future.

Summary of Sustainability in Childcare

Sustainability in Childcare can be embedded easily as long as the educators have the knowledge, the resources and the passion to educate and inspire our future generation on how to care for their environment and therefore the planet. Getting children involved in recycling practices, saving water and energy as well as planting and gardening are all easy and achievable with some planning and some inspiration! There are many more ways this education can be embedded in programs, please let me know what ideas you have or what you may have implemented!

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