Informing early childhood educators to promote learning about the environment

Learning about sustainibilty through play

This research received a ‘High’ rating for impact in the Australian Research Council’s Engagement and Impact Assessment 2018-2019 National Report

Overview of Impact

Australian preschool and school teachers are required to teach their students about sustainability and encourage positive environmental behaviours. In response, Southern Cross University and partners developed a preschool program that integrated learning about sustainability and healthy eating through different types of play.

The research was successful in increasing children’s environmental knowledge and shifting environmental behaviours. Southern Cross University also involved children and young people in writing teaching programs for schools, developing art exhibitions, networking about environmental matters online and taking part in a Climate Change Challenge. Southern Cross University wrote books and articles and gave seminars about sustainability teaching programs for teachers and trainee teachers around the world.

  • Children
  • Parents
  • Pre-service teachers
  • Teachers
  • Teacher educators
  • Education policy makers
  • Curriculum developers
  • Community in general

Despite the fact that sustainability is one of Australia’s three cross-curriculum priorities and central to the Early Years Learning Framework, environmental education remains marginalised in practice. This case describes the impact of three practice-based environmental education projects undertaken by Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles (the Professor) and collaborators.

From 2010-14 the Professor (at Southern Cross University from 2012, previously of Monash University) and Professor Susan Edwards (of Monash University, then Australian Catholic University) explored the efficacy of open-ended, modelled and purposefully-framed play for environmental education with 16 early childhood teachers and 119 children in Victoria. The resulting play-framework showed each play type to be crucial in supporting young children’s learning. The children benefitted from a rich play experience that enhanced knowledge and encouraged sustainable behaviour. By extension, the intervention delivered social and environmental benefits to the community.

From 2014-17 the Professor collaborated on a randomised trial at Childhood Management Services preschools (Victoria) to research curricula that integrated learning about healthy eating, active play and sustainability with 300 children-parent dyads and 25 early childhood teachers (Skouteris, Rutherford, Edwards and Cutter-Mackenzie). The same researchers had previously conducted a feasibility study and prepared a pedagogical statement Generating New Knowledge in Early Childhood Education: Aligning Contemporary Health, Wellbeing and Sustainability Issues with Research into Children’s Play (2012) which formed the basis of the trial.

While the wait list control group continued their usual practices, intervention teachers attended workshops and used the play-framework and popular culture motifs to develop learning experiences. This practice-based research had immediate impact. Children in the intervention group demonstrated positive environmental behaviours around recycling and healthy lifestyle choices (consuming fewer sugary drinks and eating more vegetables). Parents also benefitted by transfer of new environmental learning into homes.

One in five Australian preschool children is overweight or obese. Early childhood obesity is negatively associated with health, self-esteem and educational outcomes, and overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. While the economic costs of childhood obesity are seen as a future problem, a 2017 study showed that obese preschool children add $17 million per year more to the Australian health budget than do children of healthy weight. By facilitating healthy lifestyle choices, this early childhood intervention delivered social and economic benefits to children and Australia as a whole.

Practising and pre-service teachers and teacher educators have also benefitted from the Professor’s research. From 2014-16, there were 8751 chapter-downloads of Young Children's Play and Environmental Education in Early Childhood Education (2014), which was co-written by the Professor, and 11,513 chapter-downloads of The Socioecological Educator (2013) which the Professor co-edited and is in top 25% of Springer books’ distribution. Early childhood Australia's Best of Sustainability: Research, Practice and Theory (2013), co-written by the Professor, was widely used and Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles and Hoepper’s chapter Teaching for Sustainability (see references) was a prescribed text for 47 courses at 19 Australian universities (approximately 4600 sales 2014-16).

Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles also supported ongoing professional development of early childhood teachers by publishing in Eingana, the Journal of Environment Education Victoria (Victorian Association for Environmental Education), Early Childhood Folio (NZ Council for Educational Research) and Every Child (all 2012). From 2011-16 she delivered professional development seminars to approximately 2,000 teachers in four Australian states, and workshops on design and implementation of early childhood environmental education to 300 US and 2,000 Polish teachers (2011/2012). The Professor also supported 500 Indonesian pre-service teachers and lecturers in 2013 (an ongoing program). One of the Professor’s other publications has been compulsory reading for approximately 3,000 Polish pre-service teachers. These publications and presentations benefitted educators, and in turn delivered social and environmental benefits to the community.

The Professor’s research has also impacted education policy. She was a member of Sustainability Cross-curriculum Priority Task Force and her work was cited in the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth’s A shared early childhood development research agenda: key research gaps (2011).

From 2014-16 Professor Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles undertook a NSW Environmental Trust Project Climate Change and Me (CC+Me). 135 Northern Rivers’ children and young people aged 9-14 created Past Now Future 2015, a travelling exhibition of collaborative works. Viewed by 10,000 people, the exhibition allowed children and young people to ‘speak’ to their communities about climate change.

Using a world-first, child-framed approach, CC+Me mobilised 135 children and young people to co-develop two innovative climate change curricula (one for Upper Primary and one for Lower Secondary). The curricula facilitate deep learning and generate positive environmental behaviour. The curricula were trialled by 30 schools, distributed to all Northern Rivers’ schools, and made available online (822 downloads).

The project fostered networking for children and young people via the CC+Me website, HangOut climate change space for children under12 and the Facebook network Australian Kids for Climate Change. 1,500 children reported their climate change awareness, attitudes and actions using an avatar app during the period 2014-16, and 1,200 children and young people came together with scientists, artists, writers and community groups for the Climate Change Challenge 2016.

CC+Me empowered children and young people as emissaries for climate change and moved the majority involved from feelings of worry and concern about climate change (63% pre-CC+Me) to a position where 61% felt hopeful, informed and positive. The project also networked children and young people so they can continue to voice and action their climate change concerns. It has delivered significant social and environmental benefits and is a model for other such community initiatives.

2010-14 Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project (DP1092616) Examining play-based approaches to teaching and learning in early childhood education and care (Edwards and Cutter-Mackenzie): 16 educators in Victoria developed 3 play-based environmental learning experiences (open-ended/modelled/purposively-framed play) for 119 children. The research found all play-types to be equally valuable, a quantum leap which overturned dominance of the open-ended play paradigm.

2014-17 ARC Discovery Project DP140100938 Promoting healthy eating, active play and sustainability awareness in early childhood curricula: Addressing the Ben10™ problem (Skouteris, Edwards, Rutherford and Cutter-Mackenzie): Used popular culture motifs to examine intersect of consumption, health and environment in play-based pedagogy. 25 educators and 300 preschool children participated in a randomised trial to research interventions that integrated children's learning about healthy eating/active play and sustainability consequences of their food and toy selections. The project identified topics associated with obesity prevention/sustainability awareness for curriculum.

2014-16 NSW Environmental Trust Project (2013/EG/0048) Climate Change and Me (CC+Me) (Cutter-Mackenzie, Roche and Rousell, all of SCU): Engaged with 135 children and young people aged 9-14 from 8 schools in Northern Rivers NSW to develop regionally-relevant climate change curricula for primary/secondary schools. This was the first such curricula developed worldwide using child-framed approach. The project team: worked with children and young people to curate an exhibition of their collaborative works; established the online CC+Me Challenge to survey children and young people’s awareness, attitudes and actions; and engaged with 1200 children and young people, as well as climate scientists, artists, writers and community groups, for the Climate Change Challenge Conference.