Research Summary

Children's agency and action in nature preschool: A tale of two programs

Young children, with support of early childhood educators, have the ability to be meaningfully involved in ecologically sustainable practices

Children, Youth and Environments

The newly-emerging field of Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (ECEfS) reflects a shift from learning in and about the natural environment to acting in ways that promote environmental sustainability. ECEfS recognizes the ability of young children to be meaningfully involved in ecologically sustainable practices.

This field report describes two ECEfS projects – one in Australia and one in the United States – in which preschool children played an active role in making changes critical to the regeneration of natural environments. For each project, a preschool teacher in the role of practitioner-researcher used the Project Approach for facilitating children’s “authentic connections to, understandings of, and actions for their ecosystems.” The project in each case was child-led, with the teachers serving as facilitators, documentors, and co-learners. For purposes of this study, four data collection tools were used: a video diary of children’s nature excursions with teachers, audio recordings of children sharing their experiences during focus group discussions, practitioner-researcher reflective journals, and actual artifacts created by the children.

The provocation for the Australian project centered around the ecosystem health of two ponds: one an example of a healthy ecosystem; the other, an unhealthy ecosystem. During one phase of the project, the children explored solutions to re-establish balance in the ecosystem of the unhealthy pond. They also developed and implemented a course of action, which included involvement of the larger community in some aspects of the project. The United States project started with interest in mapping newt sightings in a forest, but soon shifted to investigating the interdependence of members of a family (regardless of species) necessary for survival. The culmination of this project was the development of a book illustrating what children had learned through their investigations. Copies of the book were distributed to the local library and nature center, families of the children, and other early childhood centers.

For each project, the children’s interests were cultivated and supported by the practitioner-researcher. The process allowed for the emergence of deeper themes foundational to education for sustainability: belonging, balance, interdependence, and empathy. In each case, the children demonstrated empathy for non-human species and viewed themselves as capable of making meaningful contributions to the larger community. Children, acting upon these dispositions and capacities, engaged in activities promoting sustainable practices beyond their individual classrooms.