By CELA on 4 Jun, 2018

Has sustainability education lost its impact? Is it an over-used term now, with its meaning muddied beyond worm farms and recycled craft paper? Wilma Murdoch, adjunct lecturer at CSU and board member at Seed Harvest Spoon, considers the question for Amplify this week and explains her answer, “Yes, no, don’t give up”.

Wilma brings 25 years of practice and professional leadership in early years education to the topic, and has practical advice for anyone wanting to rethink their approach or overcome eco-fatigue to revive their own passion for sustainability education.

Rethinking sustainability education

A recent conversation with an EC educator friend went something like this:

She said:

Don’t you think sustainability education has lost its impact? It’s hard to define, and impossible to make a difference anyway. I’ve switched off – and not just my lights – but seriously, how will my changes make any difference?

A quick response was:

Yes…and… no. Don’t give up.

The long answer

Although she raised many interesting issues, a longer response would be to offer encouragement, and suggest she engage in a community of practice with like-minded others. So the more thoughtful response would go something like this:

Yes. I agree. Sustainability education has changed, and excitement about it in early childhood education should be maintained. Yes, sustainability can be an ill-defined concept however in general educators want feel engaged with others making changes, they are well intentioned to share ideas for positive actions rather than be constrained by a definition. So no, I never think making informed decisions to reduce consumption is futile.


I understand where my friend was coming from. I know discussing “sustainable practices” in an early learning service can evoke cynicism. We all know there are quick wins to show we care about the planet, and sustainability means more than a checklist with

  1. worm farm
  2. vegetable garden
  3. coloured recycling bins.

So what exactly do educators need to do to embrace ‘sustainability’?

Everyone has a part to play, and can bring hope to their context. We easily dealt with the first myth, and then focussed on sourcing accurate information to help.

Robust discussion

I suggest a robust discussion on sustainability and creating a community of learners is a good starting point.

This was the situation I found myself in recently, with a class of early childhood B Ed students in a course on sustainability.

We had 12 weeks of critiquing these ideas together, and for me, a privilege to share in the students’ personal and professional backgrounds, and their willingness to engage deeply after auditing and reflecting on practices in their services.

Our lively weekly discussions dispelled two myths.

First, there is no “one size fits all” approach to doing “sustainability” in any early learning context. Second, it is not “all doom and gloom” around the science of climate change. Everyone has a part to play, and can bring hope to their context. We easily dealt with the first myth, and then focussed on sourcing accurate information to help.

Healthy provocations

There were two provocations which were very useful.

The first was the ABC series War on Waste.. The second season was recently screened and had created a strong reaction among many students who had watched. We talked at length about patterns of consumption – sharing our shock at why we all bought so many clothes only to throw them away as the fashions change. Or how we had never considered bananas were rejected by supermarkets because they did not meet the desirable sizes or shapes. Or how our disposable coffee cups ended up in landfill.

The series is a brilliant catalyst for injecting some fresh thinking back into ‘sustainability’.

The second provocation was the Story of Stuff. If you haven’t seen this it is highly recommended. Although made in 2007, it is an excellent 21 minute animation explaining “stuff” from extraction, through production and distribution systems and ending with over-consumption and waste disposal.

Again, some of the evidence and data presented in the video got us reflecting on the small, but significant decisions we could make to change our own consumption and disposal habits going forward.

This raised awareness and provided a platform for building new understandings. The class was a safe space for sharing advice on progress in using reusable shopping, maintaining a worm farm, re-purposing children’s clothing or ditching disposable coffee cups entirely.

Rethinking sustainable learning

At the end of the semester, everyone had identified ways in which they were more conscious consumers in their homes and personal life. This was the crucial link that made them want to get excited about their story, and lead changes in consumption and waste disposal in their work place with children and families. The class community encouraged a fresh approach to ‘sustainability’.

These crucial conversations may have just started to scratch the surface on what sustainability means individually and collectively.From exploring where to buy metal straws, or learning what goes in the recycling bin in different councils, through to keeping a chilli plant alive, our consumption and disposal habits are now under scrutiny, and we are on the journey to making the changes ‘sustainable’. No judgment for where we each started, and no fear that it is not worthwhile.

Don’t give up

So…please don’t give up, or become cynical if you are like my friend. Understanding your patterns of consumption and disposal of “stuff” can start small. It doesn’t matter where you live or work, or what you currently do or do not do . Whether you sort your recycling or not, or whether you have a worm farm, compost bin and never use plastic bags, the point of ‘sustainability education’ is be more conscious of your habits of consumption and waste disposal to begin.

I now have an entire class to thank for “planting seeds of ideas” in their understanding of sustainability.

Further reading and action

Little Green Spade Booklet 1 | Making a Great Start on Your Garden

Little Green Spade Booklet 2 | Summer Diary

Little Green Spade Booklet 3 | Autumn Diary

Little Green Spade Booklet 4 | Prepare: Winter

Little Green Spade Booklet 5 | Renewal: Spring

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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