Enabling Environments

Eco activities for your early years setting

  • Eco activities for your early years setting

TEY hears from Sarah Watkins about how to be a green role model to young children…

I was once shocked to see another teacher laminating real leaves for class (laminating sheets take at least 50 years to break down and may never biodegrade). But when I mentioned this to my son, he quite rightly pointed out that my own practice was not as ‘green’ as it could be.

This got me thinking and prompted me to carry out an eco-audit. I realised there were plenty of areas where I could make significant improvements and felt embarrassed about my smugness.

I shared my journey in Teach Early Years – the article seemed to strike a chord and I was invited to speak about sustainable practice at different events. Practitioners were asking me about activities to try so I decided to write a book of some of the activities that I have found work best.

The projects range from creating recycled kites, windsocks and garden decorations, to upcycling old T-shirts, building minibeast hotels and designing campaigns to eliminate single-use plastics from schools. Every activity has been tried and-tested by children across the world, from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. 

The ideas in the book are suitable for early years settings but some, such as candle making, require more adult support. Some of the best activities for early years are creating a nature museum, making recycled planters, and a twig boats STEM project.

Introducing eco-activities

We can all be victims of ‘busyness’ – getting things done quickly and moving onto the next task. It can be easy to fall into the trap of always doing things in a certain way.

Take note of all the different processes that take place at your setting over the course of a day or a week. Carrying out an audit can highlight practices that are harmful to the environment and at this point, think big! You may come across what I call ‘inflexibles’ – people who will tell you that ‘it’s always been done this way and we can’t change it.’ Rip up the rulebook and be an innovator!

Children feel very passionate about being involved in an audit and sometimes just need a little sensitive steering to ensure that they don’t offend or disrupt adults doing their daily work.

Greening your outside space is a great way to start your sustainable journey and you can grow plants in the smallest space. Establish no-mow spaces in large green areas and sow wild flowers. In smaller spaces, grow resilient plants such as succulents, which need little watering, and herbs. Grow and harvest your own food such as beetroot, rainbow chard, peas, and potatoes. Grow purple flowers to attract bees – they can see the colour purple better than any other colour.

Get involved in a local campaign. Collaborating as a community and taking positive action can lead to positivity and hopefulness. We can only work to lessen the effects of climate change if we join forces.

Being a green role model

Children model the behaviours they see. On a basic level, I often talk about how great my drinks bottle is because it is made of metal and can be used over and over again.

Making sustainable behaviours part of your everyday routine helps children accept this as a necessary way to act. In fact, I have found that young children are outraged when adults fail to follow sustainable practices!

Some of these practices include: using recyclable materials wherever possible, composting fruit waste, recycling paper and plastic, growing and nurturing plants, and harvesting rainwater.

Another way we can model sustainable behaviour is to openly value and support biodiversity. If you are terrified of spiders, you may need to mask this fear and loudly acknowledge the value of spiders in our eco system as you carefully move one outside!

I’ve learned that it’s important to be explicit to ourselves and to children about our values – don’t just assume. What’s particularly concerning to you? What would you like to change? For your own mental health, it can be good to focus on small scale local issues where you can make an impact.

Valuing our natural world

My book has three themes: eco-friendly practice; recycling and upcycling; and connecting with the natural world.

Humans have an innate love of nature and, as we know, feeling connected to nature helps our mental health. Physical movement outdoors leads to an increase in the production of serotonin – we feel happier being active outside!

Research shows that if we can spend time noticing nature, even in urban environments, it helps our mental health. This could be a poppy growing in a crack in the pavement or a robin on a park bench.

When children spend time in nature, they are more likely to feel good and do well. You’re much more likely to see deeper engagement outdoors, and time in nature also leads to increased focus.

It’s important to celebrate our natural world and value what we have. This can be done through growing and harvesting, encouraging plants and animals, interacting with nature, enjoying different types of weather and feeling the benefits of experiencing all the seasons.

Unfortunately, children are spending less time outside and sensory deprivation is on the rise. This is where children fail to develop their full sensory abilities. The antidote is enabling children to have the time and freedom to explore nature at their own pace.

People are more likely to engage in sustainable behaviours if they were exposed to nature and felt connected to nature at a young age. We’re much more inclined to look after our world if we value and understand it better.

Conversations about being eco-friendly

Researchers have found that climate change anxiety is on the rise globally amongst children and young people. We know, from the Ukraine conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic, that young children pick up bits of information about global events and anxiety builds, often because they don’t have the full picture.

In 2019, the UK parliament declared a climate change emergency – climate change is happening. Even young children will have heard snippets of information and early years practitioners are skilled at explaining these very challenging situations in a sensitive and appropriate way.

Studies have shown that in order to encourage more sustainable behaviours and less anxiety, people have to feel hopeful. As educators, the best way we can do this is through simple positive messages and through sharing ideas for positive action so that children don’t feel hopeless about the situation.

Picture books can be key in prompting discussion. For example, Tidy by Emily Gravett helps children to think about the importance of biodiversity and Someone Swallowed Stanley by Sarah Roberts is a good starting point for considering the impact of our actions.

I have found that the best way to support children to be eco-friendly is to talk about the issues in an honest and appropriate way, invite in organisations like The Marine Society, and then listen to children’s ideas for change. Carrying out an audit with the children is powerful – look at all the things that happen in your space and think together about what changes can be made.

Sarah Watkins is an associate lecturer, forest school leader and author of 99 Eco-Activities for Your Primary School (Routledge). Follow Sarah on Twitter: @mini_lebowski