Education For Sustainable Development

Sustainable development

‘Sustainability’ and ‘sustainable development’ are familiar words that are used quite frequently but are not always easy to define or explain. The original, and oft cited, definition of ‘sustainable development’ is from ‘Our Common Future’, also known the ‘Brundtland Report’ of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED):

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987, p.43)

In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the social, environmental and economic aims of sustainable development were referred to as three, linked ‘pillars’. The model of sustainable development as three inter-linked pillars of social equity, environmental protection and ecologically viable economic growth has since been debated, contested and critiqued but it remains influential.

In addition to social, environmental and economic aspects of sustainable development, it is also important to think in terms of inter-linked systems and recognise the ways in which people, places, and things are connected across space and time.

Education for sustainable development

Education for sustainable development (ESD) incorporates the principles and practices of sustainable development into all aspects of education and learning; aspiring to create a satisfying and meaningful present and a hopeful, fairer future for all people - and our planet. Democracy, dialogue and critical thinking are central to ESD. ESD is for all ages and the early years are of crucial importance because strong foundations of knowledge, skills and attitudes are established during this period of life and high quality education (within settings and at home) can transform children’s lives. If young children participate in rich and interesting experiences, and are encouraged to explore, understand and solve problems, then they can make a difference in their worlds, both now and in years to come.

Much work has been done during the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development from 2005-2014 and the Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future, led by UNESCO.

During this decade ‘The Contribution of Early Childhood Education to a Sustainable Society’ (UNESCO, 2008) report recommended that early childhood teachers should move beyond environmental education focusing on “nature walks” and instead provide children with an opportunity to:

‘… engage in intellectual dialogue regarding sustainability, and in concrete actions in favour of the environment. In addition, it should incorporate learning to be compassionate and respect differences, equality and fairness as the world is increasingly interdependent and inter-connected. It was suggested that, instead of talking about the 3Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic, one should refer to the 7Rs for education for sustainable development: reduce, reuse, recycle, respect, repair, reflect and refuse’ (UNESCO, 2008 page 12).

World OMEP has been working on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Early Childhood for a number of years. Since 2010 it has been a major focus for research, bringing together projects from around the world. Information about the work and the various projects, since 2010, can be found here >

Early Childhood Pathways to Sustainability was the topic of the 2015 World OMEP International Conference.

2015 is the year of global action. In September 2015 t?he United Nations ?proposed 17? Sustainable Development Global Goals?; for more information:

The current priority for World OMEP is the creation of teacher training resources for ESD and so, on this area of the OMEP UK website, we will be providing resources to support early years educators to find out more about and work towards ESD. Please help us to develop early years ESD by contributing your ideas and experiences. Contact

Downloadable ESD resources for early years educators:

Children’s books related to ESD topics

The Drop Goes Plop: A First Look at the Water Cycle, by Sam Godwin (2004)

Bat Loves the Night, by Nicola Davies (2008)

Books about ESD in Early Childhood

Education for Sustainable Development in the Early Years by John Siraj-Blatchford, Kimberly Caroline Smith and Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson (Published by OMEP in 2010)

Young Children and the Environment (2nd edition) edited by Julie M. Davis

Research in Early Childhood Education for Sustainability edited by Julie Davis and Sue Elliott

Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability by Tracy Young and Sue Elliott Early Childhood Australia

Research on ESD in Early Childhood

The Contribution of Early Childhood Education to a Sustainable Society (UNESCO 2008) edited by Ingrid Pramling Samuelsson and Yoshie Kaga

International Journal of Early Childhood Special Issue on Early Childhood Education for Sustainability (Volume 41, Issue 2, 2009)

The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education (founded 2013)

Links to blogs

Education for Sustainability - Supporting Sustainable Development in Early Childhood Education

Zoe Miles- Environmental Education

Links to information and resources

The Little Earth Charter

Sustainable development education within the early years of Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland

Links to organisations and associations promoting ESD

Forest School Association

Keep Britain Tidy (Eco-Schools and Green Flag Awards)

RSPB giving nature a home

SEEd Sustainability and Environmental Education

Connecting Children and Nature Networks Kent

The National Association of Environmental Education

Learning Through Landscapes