Sustainability skills at the preschool level

What do they look like?

The following explores what sustainability means, why it belongs in Early childhood curricula, and what sustainability skills look like in everyday teaching practice.
Sustainability. This word is everywhere.
The United Nations 17 Sustainable Development goals are a familiar site and educators far and wide are encouraged to incorporate them into their teaching practice which prompts children to ask “What does sustainability mean?”.
How do we answer them?
One way to understand if something is sustainable or not is to ask “Can I do this over and over and over again, forever? If I do, what will happen?”
Reflecting in this way shows that sustainability goes far beyond reusing plastic bags; it can be applied to any aspect of living, teaching and learning and reaches in to examine our values and the very way we see the world and the people in it.
On a daily basis, a reflective teacher asks themselves:

Is this schedule sustainable?
Is this classroom design sustainable?
Is this approach to conflict resolution sustainable?

Once sustainability is stripped bare in this way, we recognise opportunities to implement more sustainable practices everywhere, from the way we use technology to how we make learning accessible to people with non-standard learning.

How can we bring sustainability to the early years classroom? Is it relevant? Can young children engage with the complexities and uncertainties related to sustainability? It’s true that for several decades of the 20th century, very young children were not believed to be capable or competent but in recent years:

Researchers, psychologists, linguists, neuroscientists and philosophers have revealed that babies are born knowing a lot; they learn more, feel more, create more, think more, care more and experience more than we could ever have anticipatedFrench, 2019

Very young children can grasp complicated concepts. They can form opinions, they have values, outlooks and original ideas. That is why existing curriculum frameworks are designed to address their cognitive, social, emotional, physical and literacy skills.
So isn’t that enough, where does sustainability fit in and why do it?
One plausible rationale is that in 2020, the European Commission developed the Green Deal to steer Europe away from environmental degradation and towards becoming a modern, resource efficient, socially just and competitive economy. It is part of an important worldwide conversation, one that seeps into our everyday lives, every piece of food we buy, how we heat our homes, what we wear, how we get around, how our workplaces function is connected to sustaining a habitable planet, a just and peaceful society and a healthy economy. This is the world we’ve inherited and the one we will pass on to future generations. Young children not only need 21st century skills that address sustainability, they have a right to the opportunities to learn them.

In order to bring sustainability to the core of Early Childhood Education, what kind of learning culture do we create? What skills, values and attitudes do our children need to develop so they can thrive and take part in this pressing, worldwide discourse?
In 2017, UNESCO designed a framework of key cross cutting skills related to sustainability:

Systems thinking The ability to recognise and understand systems and relationships
Anticipatory thinking The ability to understand what predictions are and be able to make them
Self-awareness The ability to reflect on one's own actions
Normative competency
The ability to reflect on the values that underpin one's own actions
Strategic competency The ability to observe and record
Collaboration The ability to learn from others and strive to understand the perspectives of others
Critical thinking The ability to question and take a position in the sustainability discourse
Integrated problem solving The ability to foster entrepreneurship in the context of sustainability

Many of these skills, attitudes and values are already integrated into established curriculum frameworks which makes the UN’s cross cutting skillset a useful tool that teachers can use to fine tune what they are already doing as opposed to engaging in a disruptive overhaul.

Leicht, A., Heiss, J., & Byun, W. J. (2018). Issues and trends in education for sustainable development (Vol. 5). UNESCO publishing

According to this approach, sustainability performance depends on the interplay of knowledge and skills, values and motivational drivers and opportunities. The interrelationship of these dimensions influences personal behavior as shown in the figure (Figure 1, p-46):

But what does this thoroughly researched framework look like when we are in the classroom with the children? It looks great on paper but does it transfer to real life?

Picture it. A Montessori classroom prepared for 10 children aged 2.5-5. In the “practical life” section of a Montessori prepared environment, there are Shoes with shoe polish, silver jugs that need to be dusted, child sized brushes, sewing kits to repair aprons… Children in Montessori schools have been engaging in these learning opportunities for almost 100 years, for fine motor skill development and independence. But what else do these simple materials teach that align with the contemporary discourse around sustainability? They show children the value of materials and how preserving them and caring for them results in less waste. What’s more, these tasks promote social equality. They show children that everyday tasks can be a pleasure and not something that is beneath some people and the job of others. This helps them reflect on their actions and understand the values that underpin them. In our modern culture, it is common to consume and amass way more than we need whereas the Montessori classroom shows children simplicity is beautiful and gives freedom.

Picture it. A Contemporary Play-based preschool where educators co-construct meaning and search for teachable moments in play episodes. They look for lines of inquiry and reflect on ways to use children’s natural interest to extend learning. One way to support sustainability skills in such a setting would be to identify an interest and reframe it so if the children are following an interest around playing “shop”, the educator uses role play to invite the children to explore where the food and materials in the shop come from, how they are transported and who grows them. Does the shop pay a fair price to suppliers? Does the agricultural company pay its workers a living wage? This is an opportunity to meet children where they are and help them familiarize themselves with the contradictions, uncertainties and complexities of sustainability.

A toddler room: In the high energy environment of a toddler room, supporting skills for sustainability may seem overly ambitious but it is most likely happening already. If the educator is designing the learning environment so that getting the toddlers outside everyday is a priority, he, she or they are already supporting sustainability skills. The change in environment itself helps the young child develop the ability to predict different futures by accepting and understanding that change is a natural part of their lives. Moreover, Toddlers are famous for using toys, tools and materials in a way other than for what they were intended. It is tempting to redirect them to use the materials in the way that we want but in truth, when a toddler repurposes a toy, they show Strategic thinking and entrepreneurship, essential skills for sustainability.

Sustainability is anything but simple. But like anything worth learning, there is beauty, urgency and uncertainty in its complexity. The sustainability discourse is part of our everyday lives and will only grow and develop. In order for young children to be able to participate in the discourse in a meaningful way, they need opportunities to develop 21st century skills. Using UNESCO’s framework as a tool to refine and reframe existing curricula can do just that.

Why outdoor education?

Introducing Outdoor Education

The concept of outdoor education refers to a wide range of educational practices in which the common denominator is the enhancement of the outdoor environment in its different configurations adopted as an educational environment. Thus, the main characteristic that distinguishes outdoor education from other educative programs is the physical setting; natural environments became the primary educational location (Farné & Agostini, 2014).
The pedagogical orientation behind outdoor education does not prescribe specific activities or learning pathways. It does not define any specific goals that are possible to achieve through the implementation of outdoor education. Goals and activities strongly depend on the specificity of the educational context (i.e., school context or extra-curricular contexts) and the choices of teachers and/or educators. However, it is well-known that the outdoor settings increase the learning opportunities as well as it implies that children will use and apply specific skills (e.g., manipulation skills) more frequently and with greater intensity than they are likely to do in indoor settings (Brymer & Renshaw, 2010).

To sum up, outdoor education is not a "new form" of education, and it is not entirely different from traditional education. Instead, it represents the pedagogical discovery of all the potentialities that environmental settings can bring to education. It is a different way of doing school, recognizing the times of learning with those of experience, taking the “external” environment as a normal-natural learning environment in connection and continuity with the “internal” environment (Gilbertson et al., 2022).

The main characteristics and the benefits of Outdoor Education

According to Ford (1986), outdoor education philosophy comes down to 4 main promises:


The human commitment and responsibility for stewardship of the land;


Belief in the importance of the interrelationship of all facets of the ecosystem;


Knowledge of the natural environment as a medium for leisure;


Acknowledgment that outdoor education is a continual educational experience.

One of the most "famous" definitions comes from Simone Priest (1986), who defined outdoor education as an umbrella that includes all the forms of education about the outdoors (e.g., adventure education).

He pointed out 6 main points/characteristics of outdoor education:


It is a method of learning;


It is experiential;


It takes place primarily outdoor;


It requires the use of senses;


It is about the relationship between people and natural environments and resources;


Finally, it is holistic: the self, the others, and nature are interrelated.

More recently, scholars focused on the health benefits perspective of outdoor education, highlighting as outdoor education:

Reduces the levels of stress (Campos et al., 2004) and prevents behavioral problems (Campos et al., 2004; Sameroff & Fiese, 2000);
Enhances communication and teamwork skills (Fiskum & Jacobesen, 2012);
Improves the levels of resilience;
Allows individuals to cope better with life stressors;
Increases physical health;
Increases self-efficacy and knowledge in and through nature (Ewert & Sibthorp, 2014);
Enhances the levels of restorativeness (Breitenbecher & Fuegen, 2019).

A brief overview of the history of Outdoor Education

Several pedagogues had shown the importance of the natural environment in the educational process, starting from Romanticism, when the model of urban society broke the connection between human life and the natural environment. For example, Jan Jacques Rousseau believed that the outdoor setting was the most suitable environment for the development of children because it allows the experience of freedom and responsibility, the acquisition of cognitive abilities through direct exercise, and the stimulation of all the senses (Cambi, 2011). The thoughts of Rousseau inspired the pedagogical model of Friedric Froebel (1782-1852), who developed the “Childhood Gardens”, in which children took care of gardens and plants, learning to take responsibilities while playing in contact with nature. In his pedagogical philosophy, Frobel foresaw three types of activities:


Playing with inanimate objects;


Playing with other children;


Gardening and caring for animals to induce sympathy for plants and animals.

After Froebel's death, his outdoor school model was implemented in schools in Northern Europe, America, and Japan, paving the way for the concept of outdoor education.

Outdoor in practice: The example of Kindergarten in Woods

The educational design of the Kindergarten in Woods found its roots in 5 basic foundations:


The outdoor space as a privileged educational environment;


Great attention to the educator-child relationship;


Direct experience as the cardinal principle of teaching; 


The importance of emotions;


The “game” is the preferred teaching vehicle and the most widely used communicative tool.

This educational model has several strengths.


It allows children (and teachers) to learn based on empirical observations and direct experience of real situations (Crudeli et al., 2012);


Kindergartens in the Woods are a great example of how it is possible to educate children through nature, which offers child-friendly space and time;


Learning within and by nature increases sustainable rather than exploitative attitudes and behaviors in children (Belvedere, 2013).

Essentially, Kindergartens in the Woods takes the form of an educational strategy based on the quality of experiences, in direct contact with the environment and its real phenomena, and stimulates cognitive aspects through sense-motor action. Moreover, equal importance is assigned to the "connection between outdoor education and the need of the new child generations to recover the centrality of their bodies, the need for movement, spontaneous play, and psycho-physical wellbeing" (Ceciliani, 2014).

Outdoor Education and STEAM approach

Nowadays, great importance is attached to the development of skills in STEAM (Science, Technologies, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics). Thus, it is essential that teaching in schools, even since kindergartens, develop activities related to real-world situations in order to enhance these competencies in students and allow them to understand and be actively engaged with their environment. In this regard, it is possible to point out a strong connection between outdoor education and the application of STEAM approach. According to Kendell et al. (2006), any designed outdoor educational activities might be considered as a learning STEAM strategy. Indeed, these educational activities provide direct experiences with the real world and foresee a strong connection between children and the environment in which they live, challenging them with real-world issues (Haas et al., 2021).

Furthermore, outdoor education provides several (natural) elements that might be used as "tools" to improve STEAM skills in pupils. For example, staying in natural environments allows children to engage with natural light, air, water, and habitat systems. Moreover, it allows to reimagine a playground where children can empirically observe, hypothesize and test their hypotheses, etc. In this context, children might enhance their STEAM abilities within sustainable development (Keane, 2016).


In the modern, digitized and unpredictable world, where knowledge changes faster than educational systems, the STEAM education aims to blur the traditional boundaries between disciplines and raise the students who are thoughtful risks-takers, researchers engaged in experiential learning, persistent problem-solvers, embracing collaboration with peers, creative innovators and learners of the 21st century.

The acronym STEAM refers to 5 pillars of modern education:

S - Science
Various areas of natural sciences, including systemic studies of nature and functioning of materials and the physical world (the universe), based on positivist and quantitative methods such as: observation, experiment or measurement, aimed at formulating the regularities that describe the analyzed facts in a general manner. The term refers to biology, physics, chemistry, geology, and other sciences related to studying Earth.

T - Technology
The field of science which refers to inventing and using technological tools, as well as studying their relations with life, society and the environment. This area of science is based on industrial art, engineering and applied sciences. It allows children to appreciate the possibilities to use IT as a practical tool for learning, organizing one’s knowledge, as well as sharing it with a community online. Although most frequently mistaken for modern technologies, IT or robotics, T in the STEAM acronym refers to each use of tools in order to improve the human environment or solve everyday problems (not only the use of modern technologies, but also tools such as a screwdriver, drill, hammer, mixer, knife, waffle iron, etc.).

E - Engineering
An art of practical, useful application of knowledge driven from biology, physics and chemistry in order to design, construct and test various devices, such as: engines, machines, bridges, buildings, vehicles, vessels, etc. Such an approach not only gives the opportunity to a direct, practical application of knowledge, but also to check the effectiveness and precision of one’s own action – the work of hands means using simple or more complex tools to build a prototype/ model of a device. It often involves traditional tools – underestimated or even disregarded in modern education, nevertheless these tools, such as a hammer, drill, crochet or mixer help us solve dozens of everyday problems: assemble new furniture, hang a painting on the wall, etc. Thus, the engineering component is a natural link between biological/mathematical knowledge and the skillfulness in using technological achievements of civilization – both the simplest and the most advanced ones.

A - Arts
Liberal Arts include the ethics, ideals, moral values, language creativity and communication, emotional and physical expression grouped into overlapping categories of Humanities & Social Studies. It introduces into education the basic understanding of how society developed with its cultural attitudes, ethics, constructs & customs in the past, to be effective and meaningful in the present as well as to create a sustainable future. As Georgette Yakman explains, the liberal arts add the “who & why” to the “what & how” of STEM.

M - Mathematics

A group of interconnected areas of knowledge including algebra, geometry and arithmetic, focused on investigating the notion of a number, quantity, shape, space, dimensions and their mutual relations described through specialist terms/mathematical concepts.

STEAM education is not a simple sum of the described constituents. On the contrary, it is an educational strategy designed to show the practical application of scientific knowledge in everyday life and enable a deep understanding of reality and culture. The core elements are:

To inspire problem thinking, engaging children in research-based activities;

To use complex, multidimensional & interdisciplinary problems;

To use the meaningful, everyday context of learning;

To engage children into team-work;

To have fun!

Core STEAM skills:

Learning to think and discover

Creative thinking

Fluency of thinking

Flexibility of thinking

Originality of thinking

Sensitivity to problems


Critical thinking

Mathematical reasoning

Scientific thinking

Asking questions
Analyzing and solving problems
Designing experiments
Conducting research - predicting, testing hypothesis, observing, experimenting
Drawing conclusions based on evidence, reasoning
Using digital tools do conduct and document research

Other skills:

Learn to move graciously

Large and fine motor skills

Hand-eye coordination

Precise and efficient movement

Learn to work in a team

Taking common decisions

Sharing ideas: negotiating meanings

Sharing responsibility for a task

Accepting leadership and management

Following the safety rules and discipline

Learn to use language

Basic literacy: reading, writing, listening with comprehension
ICT literacy: using computer to communicate with others

Core STEAM skills include two essential groups of abilities:

A group of cognitive skills called “Learning to think and discover”. These are the abilities underlying the problem-solving ability, such as: identifying the problem/ realizing the gap in one’s own knowledge and becoming curious about it, formulating the precise question, predicting the possible answers (hypothesis), designing the procedure necessary to check the predictions (to test the hypothesis), conducting research, observing the results, and drawing evidence-based conclusions etc. All these are crucial ingredients of so called “scientific thinking” - precise, logical, evidence-based reasoning underlying every scientific procedure, both inductive and deductive.  An important areas of such thinking are also:

Creative thinking - a thought process used to generate new ideas while exploring many different possible solutions. Divergent, non-linear reasoning is usually activated while coping with open questions which force the learner to go beyond the stereotypes, find unexpected connections, think outside the box, instead of searching for an algorithm (or cognitive schema). Important qualities of divergent thinking are described by J.P. Guilford as:

Fluency of thinking
The ability to generate many ideas in a certain period of time (the speed of inventing new ideas)

Flexibility of thinking
The ability to come up with different types of answers underlying the adaptability being ready to change the direction of thinking

Originality of thinking
The ability to invent unusual, non-stereotypical ideas which allow the person to look at the problem from a different, unexpected, surprising, metaphorical perspective

Sensitivity to problems
A questioning attitude, ability to perceive disadvantages, shortcomings of objects, possible problems or barriers in actions, inconsistencies or gaps in data etc.

The amount of effort invested in presenting the creative idea (clarifying, explaining, embellishment, saturation with details, correcting one’s own work to etc.)

Critical thinking - reflective, evaluative, judgmental attitudes towards the knowledge statements - the ability to undertake critical reflection in the process of understanding and creating knowledge.

A process that involves asking appropriate questions, gathering and creatively sorting through relevant information, relating new information to existing knowledge, re-examining beliefs and assumptions, reasoning logically, and drawing reliable and trustworthy conclusions. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to apply theoretical constructs to understanding the problem, consider evidence, and evaluate methods or techniques for forming a judgement. The cognitive skills of analysis, interpretation, inference, explanation, evaluation, monitoring and correcting one’s own reasoning are at the heart of critical thinkingIBE, p. 15

Mathematical reasoning - the ability to use mathematical concepts and disciplined thinking to solve everyday problems, to perceive the reality as internally organized, based on the concepts of number, quantity, frequency, patterns, internal rhythms etc. They include: precision and logic in managing quantitative data (counting, calculating, measuring, classifying), but also the ability to represent ideas in a mathematical way (create patterns, models, theoretical constructs, tables, graphs etc.).

Please note, these skills are naturally intertwined, inseparable, interacting or conditioning each other. They were separated only on theoretical level of description to illustrate the most important aspects of STEM education. A good example of such interaction is the ability to use digital tools to conduct and document research, present their results or communicate with others, to share knowledge, create the culture/ or environment of thinking This ability may be perceived as a separate set of skills (e.g. searching for information, comparing data from different sources, selecting the most important pieces of the search, using popular applications etc). In STEM education however, such skills are embedded in a broader process of conducting scientific experiments, exploring the reality around with the practical use of digital tools. Computer and ICT technology becomes here an important tool of thinking - helpful, but external, complementing the capabilities of the human mind rather than replacing/ substituting them.

A group of abilities related to self-regulated learning - represented in the Matrix as "Learning to learn”. These are the combination of cognitive, metacognitive and emotional skills described in EU documents (Hoskins, Fredriksson 2008) as a reference to all cross-cultural measures of competence in learning, e.g. PISA tests. The official definition of "Learning to learn" was offered by European Council in 2006:

The ability to pursue and persist in learning, to organize one’s own learning, including effective management of time and information, both individually and in groups. This competence includes awareness of one’s learning process and needs, identifying available opportunities, and the ability to overcome obstacles in order to learn successfully. This competence means gaining, processing and assimilating new knowledge and skill as well as seeking and making use of guidance. Learning to learn engages learners to build on prior learning and life experiences in order to use and apply knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts: at home, at work, in education and trainingEducation Council, 2006 annex, paragraph 5

Self-initiated, self-regulated, independent, intentional learning has become the key to personal and professional development in the contemporary world.

There are 3 crucial dimensions of "Learning to learn” ability, as described by Hoskins and Fredriksson (2008, p. 28-28):

The affective dimension comprises such elements, such as:                                                                       
Motivation to learn and engage
Academic self-concept and self-esteem
Positive self-image as a learner, ability to recognizing one’s own strengths and dispositions in the learning process 
Feeling of self-efficacy
Based on previous positive experiences, achievements and successes in learning 
Emotional resistance
The ability to cope with stress and negative feeling which might occur while learning

The cognitive dimension is based on executive function and the effectiveness of basic cognitive processing;
The metacognitive dimension comprises such abilities as: planning one’s own learning, monitoring the course and effectiveness of learning process, evaluating the achieved results etc. All these abilities are the prerequisites for achieving the cognitive autonomy and becoming a self-regulated learner, independent in thinking and making decisions, however able and eager to search for educational support in social environment if needed.

Learning to learn abilities are often disrespected or not taken seriously enough in preschool education, perceived by many teachers as „too difficult” for young learners. STEM education allows to include these abilities as a natural elements of everyday learning.

Please note: We decided to use the term “skills or abilities” instead of competencies for two reasons:


Preschool core-curricula of partner countries concentrate on skills defined as "the ability, proficiency or dexterity to carry out tasks that come from education, training, practice or experience” (IBE 2013, p. 53). Skill is the ability to perform actions which achieve a desired outcome.


The concept of "competence” is much broader, going beyond the knowledge and skills. The Council of Europe (1997) proposed that competence should be regarded “as the general capability based on knowledge, experience, values, dispositions which a person has developed through engagement with educational practices” (p. 26). Therefore, the concept of competence "is not limited to cognitive elements (involving the use of theory, concepts or tacit knowledge); it also encompasses functional aspects (involving technical skills) as well as interpersonal attributes (e.g. social or organizational skills) and ethical values” (IBE 2013, p. 12). The great benefit to a concept like “competence” is that it directs our attention beneath the observable behavioral surface of “skills” to inquire into the mental capacity that creates the behavior. And it directs our attention beyond the acquisition of ‘knowledge’ as storable contents (what we know) to inquire into processes by which we create knowledge (how we know) (Hoskins and Fredriksson (2008, p. 28-28)). Considering the above, we concluded that achieving the competence at an early stage of life is quite impossible.


Preschool Kitchen as a Laboratory for STEM education

The KLab4Kids project aims at proposing interdisciplinary activities in an integrated teaching context that allows pre-schoolers to develop STEM skills while practicing exciting science at the same time. One of the goals of the project is to develop innovative didactical materials (also through re-use of resources) stimulating group processes among children, increasing motivation and achievements in science learning through kitchen laboratory.

The project is focused on student-centred and problem-based active learning. This multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach fosters critical thinking skills by addressing cultural and/or environmental contexts in teaching science through kitchen activities.

During organized cooking classes, the children can handle vegetables, meat and other food products in the preparation of meals. This experience allows them to become confident with the basic STEM concepts such as measuring, weighing, timing, combining ingredients, cooking and heating procedures.

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