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Young children, the outdoors and nature
Young children, the outdoors and nature

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1.2 The need for new ways of thinking

Many would argue that the idea of ‘sustainability’ should be at the centre of humans’ thinking as they consider their place in the world. However, the term ‘sustainability’ may be ‘confused and contentious’ and have ‘no universally accepted … definition’ (Boyd et al., 2017). Some draw on the definition of the Brundtland World Commission on Environment and Development report (United Nations, 1987) which describes the term as the ability to meet ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (p. 43).

Others would suggest that this definition leans more to the ‘get’ approach described earlier i.e., the focus is clearly on human need. At the same time the causes of ‘unsustainability’ are diverse and complex. Nevertheless, by 2030, SDG 4 states that ‘all learners [should] acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development’ and Boyd et al. (2017) remind us that ‘early childhood education [is] … a key phase to establish learning relating to sustainability’.

If the increasing consensus that the ‘problem’ lies in contemporary perspectives of human/non-human relations, is valid, then it seems to make sense to go right back to the beginning and consider how very young children are introduced to their world, how they become acquainted with the environment. Boyd et al. (2017) refer to the work of Professor Julie Davies and her focus on the three areas of learning ‘in the environment, about the environment and for the environment’ (Davies and Elliot, 2014, p. 4) chiming very much with Froebel’s ideas of the child ‘in and with nature’.

This way of thinking about the child and nature aligns very much with the idea of the ‘steward’ that was discussed in the introduction of this session. It also calls to mind the Māori and Pasifika perspective and the child as ‘Kaitiaki’ (guardian and protector) that was noted in Session 1.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to suggest that young babies should be lectured about the dangers of climate change, but it is not so difficult to envisage how they could learn ‘in, about and for’ their environment in developmentally, and socio-culturally appropriate ways. For instance, Davies stresses the importance of play in ‘how babies begin to understand their surroundings and the relationships between themselves and others, using all their senses and every part of their body … [so that they] … come to terms with the unpredictability of the world and associated human and non-human relationships’ (cited in Boyd et al., 2017).

Put simply, the argument is that if humans see themselves as separate to the natural world, they may care less about what happens to it. We know that historically and internationally, different understandings of nature/environment relations have been dominant. The Māori perspective introduced in Session 1, for example, is one of continuity and connection. The Froebelian perspective explored in Session 3, is similarly holistic.

Sustainability scholars argue that what is needed is a fundamental change of perspective to one that aligns more with these two, rather than piecemeal technical or practical fixes. Educational philosopher Gert Biesta (2022, p. 3) argues: ‘the question how we, as human beings exist “in” and “with” the world, natural and social, that is the central, fundamental, and if one wishes, ultimate educational concern’.