James Boddey, Director of Busy Bodies Child Care Centre, UK
In early 2021, our kindergarten decided to make a concerted effort to be more considerate towards the planet, focusing on how we could do more to reduce our waste, to educate children and families on environmental issues and to make small steps towards a brighter future. In Early Years care and education we are always thinking about the children and their futures, and when we consider sustainability and our connection to the planet, we are conscious of the need to establish foundations that will lead to a brighter future.
This all started one evening when I was sorting the rubbish into piles for recycling. I reflected on how, for me, recycling was not something that I grew up doing. If it had been something that I had done since I could walk, talk and understand, then it would be embedded in my everyday routines and actions. Imagine if the next generation were given the tools, information and skills to engage with these routine environmental activities without even having to stop to think. This was the spark that started our journey to making some changes.
In the Early Years sector, we have the perfect opportunity to teach skills, share knowledge and build foundations for individuals’ lives in the future. When you plant a sunflower seed with a child, when you introduce the new paper recycling box to a child or when you build a birdfeeder with a child, for example, you are connecting children to nature. They begin to see that we are all connected; by planting a seed, we grow a flower that the bees will feed on and the cycle of life continues. Young children are building knowledge, and if we embed ideas about recycling, waste, efficient energy use and protecting the environment, these concepts become an intrinsic part of their future lives. It is true, as stated in the ‘Birth to 5 matters’ guidance (Early Years Coalition, 2021, p. 36), that ‘Children are active community-makers. They participate in and contribute to multiple communities as they move between home, extended family, settings and play areas.’ Children have the power to reach out to others, share ideas and ask questions. For example, a parent informed me that their three-year-old child had been in a fast food restaurant with his grandparent and had told them exactly which bin to put which rubbish in and why we should recycle. There is evidence to suggest that children can change the attitudes of their parents (Damerell et al., 2013). What we do, say, feel and think in the setting is just the stone hitting the water. The ripple effects of these ideas can be felt far and wide and impact multiple communities. Our philosophy is that children should be introduced early on to the connections between the environment, animals, plants and human health, as well as the behaviours that they can adopt and action that they can take to protect their health and respect nature.
Where we started
It is easy to feel overwhelmed when you begin a journey like this. The first step was reading online blogs and speaking to local businesses and people who were already doing aspects of the things that I wanted us to do. Research is important in helping to discover different ways of doing things and finding businesses and organisations doing marvellous things that inspire. It was important to also reflect on what we were already doing well. This enabled me to create a set of eco goals for the kindergarten. The goals were necessarily specific and achievable. It was important to choose goals about which I felt strongly and that would enable us to make a difference, no matter how small (Greenmatch, 2022).
I shared this vision and the new eco policy, procedures and goals with the kindergarten staff. We then collaborated to consider how we could meet these goals as a collective team. Once the goals were agreed, we found that choosing one thing at a time and focusing on making that one change – for example, taking the bus instead of driving or using reusable wipes – worked well. Once this new change was embedded and became habitual, we moved on to the next one. Embedding each new change into the culture of our practice and fully understanding the purpose and the benefits were key to long-term success.
It is always important when making changes to have a compelling understanding of their purpose. Staff teams will be more likely to follow new procedures if they believe in the goals and share your vision and drive. Goals can be as wide-ranging as you are practically able to accomplish; at our kindergarten we have kept it simple. We want to reduce the waste going to landfill by recycling and reusing materials. We want to consider our energy use and reduce it as much as possible, and we want to seek local suppliers for our fruit and snack provisions. There is always potential for some Early Years settings to go further – for example, by starting composting (something that we sadly do not have space to do). Another idea could be to start ‘Vegetarian Mondays’ and much more. Every setting is different, and choices should reflect the needs and the practicalities of the setting.
Share good practice
It is valuable to make contacts and to exchange ideas with people who have knowledge, skills and experiences that will be beneficial to your plans and ideas. We shared our plans and new policy on our social media channels and in our newsletter to all parents/carers. We received lots of enthusiastic replies and some people had ideas and suggestions to share. Parents and carers may also be considering their eco impact and will share thoughts, passions and suggestions. Practising a ‘collaborative sharing culture’ (Luke and Gourd, 2018) and sharing good practice with other Early Years settings is part of our professional identity in education, so sharing our ideas with other settings and encouraging others to reflect on what we are doing will encourage others to follow in our footsteps. Being an ‘agent of change’ can potentially impact the practice of others, ‘creating small but valuable changes to practice’ (Prowle and Hodgkins, 2020, p. 70).
Involve the children
It is important to remember that one of the key reasons for making these changes is the learning opportunities that they provide for children and how we can support them from an early age to understand their role in this world and the connections all around them. Some ideas to involve the children include:
- collecting food scraps after snack time to take outside for the birds
- sorting rubbish into the recycling bins
- considering how they might reuse items and resources
- planting seeds, growing vegetables and fruit and caring for plants
- learning about caring for animals
- going on a litter-picking trip nearby and talking about the importance of putting rubbish in the bins
- feeding the birds, building bug hotels, creating an area for hedgehog hibernation and learning about the wildlife with which we share our local area.
Involving the children at every stage increases their ‘skills, power, confidence and enjoyment’ (Save the Children, 2020, p. 4). The children may well become advocates of eco-living.
Finding out about local businesses, products and people who share the local community with you can be enlightening. Shopping locally not only reduces our carbon footprint but is also advantageous for the economic future of local, independent shops. By making choices that affect our local community, we can impact our immediate section of our world and model a change to others, creating a ripple effect. We are very fortunate in our local community to have a variety of shops and businesses who share our passion. We now get our fruit and vegetables delivered by our local organic greengrocer and it tastes fantastic. The children get to see the delivery driver bring it and we then have the great joy of singing the ‘What’s in the fruit box this week?’ song. As the supply is based on seasonal availability, every week is different.
Reusable nappies and wipes
It is astonishing to learn that the UK adds three billion single-use nappies to landfill every year (Crawford, 2021), and it is estimated that these nappies take around 500 years to decompose (WWF Australia, 2021). Realising the scale of the issue and considering the number of wipes and disposable nappies that we use every week prompted a clear need to try to reduce this contribution to landfills.
I first went to visit the local cloth nappy shop to talk about how they work and how we can support families who choose to use them. After an inspirational meeting, I came away with the knowledge that I needed to make the changes necessary to allow all parents/carers to bring in cloth nappies if they chose to. We also talked about the use of reusable wipes, and this is something else that that we changed. We also considered where our wipes were coming from and the damage to the planet that these wipes were doing. We made the simple change to plastic-free wipes that were compostable.
If you are considering following in our footsteps, then you are on an exciting journey and every little step that you make will be a step in the right direction. There should be no pressure to rush, or to take on too much and be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Considering the planet and your local community and making one or two small changes will make a difference. Encouraging children and staff to focus on this area creates a feeling of connection to the world around them, and can broaden to include similar changes in other aspects of their lives. It is that ripple effect of change, all of which can start with you and your setting and lead to a positive impact on individuals, communities and the world as a whole.