Teaching sustainability

A free course for Early Years and Primary teachers from the University of Reading

The University of Reading has developed a new online course to assist teachers develop the way sustainability. It’s free and available to any international school. Dr. Helen Bilton reports.

Course title

Teaching Climate and Sustainability in Early Years and Primary Schools

An Outdoor Learning Approach.

 Learning about the environment, in the environment.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing the planet. As educators, many of us want to highlight this to the children we teach and encourage them to take action but it can feel overwhelming: not knowing what to do or where to start.

With this in mind, we at the University of Reading have developed a short online course to help schools and settings incorporate learning about the climate into their teaching and empower children to make changes through sustainability actions.

Nature of the course

We didn’t set out to provide a roadmap for climate education, (every school and setting is different!) instead, we’ve created a space for teachers to discuss examples from case study schools and nurseries and share their own experiences and ideas. In this way we hope that the people who take the course can contribute to the discussion, so everyone finishes with a better understanding and with a sense of hope.

Time commitment

Taking approximately six hours of flexible study, this unique course explores teaching climate and sustainability through an outdoor learning approach. This is because we believe that:

“To care for the world, you need to love it. To love it, you need to be a part of it. To be a part of it, you need to spend lots of time out in it. In this way you can appreciate the world’s power and fragility. Children must be allowed to learn in the outdoor environment”.

Learning in action at Reading’s partner school

Participants will explore the importance of being outside for inspiring children and how to lead high-quality learning experiences outdoors. By watching videos of children learning outside at our partner school in Wokingham in the UK, participants will see why teaching outdoors enables children to engage with climate and sustainability academically, emotionally and physically.  As the children we interviewed for the course told us:

“You’re able to touch the trees. And in books you’re not able to, you’re just looking at pictures.”

The value of outdoor learning

In the first part, we discuss both the benefits and the challenges of outdoor learning, before exploring ideas for activities on seasons, climate change and contributing to scientific investigations. We reflect on the power of the individual – how small changes can make a difference and suggest educators keep a record of their ideas and plans as they develop.

Empowering children

In the second part, we consider how to empower children to discover and care for the environment as well as share ideas for exploring sustainability issues with them – focusing on the food production system and waste – through outdoor activities. The course finishes with a plan for how to trial ideas with the children.

Observing activities

Our partnership school caters for children 4-11 years of age and much of the work of the school comes from the wonderful influences and knowledge of nursery/early years education. While I was there children created ice mobiles and moved bark chippings to cover a piece of ground that keeps getting waterlogged. The 10-year-olds had a debate about veganism. Children planted garlic and onions, (and potatoes later) which will be used in a bake- off session for all classes when they harvest the crops. As one teacher at the school explains:

“Young children are a lot more aware than a lot of adults about climate change and about the things that are happening in the world around us. They offer a really unique perspective and I think teaching children from a young age allows them to take a real ownership of knowledge of climate change for their whole lives and then they can go on and educate the people around them as well.”

The school is not saying they have all the answers, they simply take us on their journey, which is by no means complete and they are looking forward to hearing the ideas of those who take the course to help them develop further.

Sustainability & climate change strategy in the UK

At the present time the UK’s Department for Education (DfE)  DfE is finalising its Sustainability & Climate Change draft strategy in which schools and educational settings will play a central role in educating about climate and sustainability. The DfE want to create a virtual National Education Nature Park (NENP) of all outdoor spaces in educational institutions, to improve biodiversity and set up a Climate Leaders Award to allow recognition of education providers and children developing their connection with nature.

Small actions make big differences

Whilst a national strategy demonstrates the importance of climate education, our course at Reading shows that teachers can make a difference as individuals by doing just one thing, well.

By taking this manageable approach, participants will feel more comfortable teaching about climate and sustainability outdoors and we hope in the process, also benefit in terms of their own wellbeing and enjoyment of their job.

The course is open for anyone to join for free, including teachers at international schools: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/teaching-climate-and-sustainability-in-primary-schools


 Dr Helen Bilton is Professor of Outdoor Learning and Play at the Institute of Education,  University of Reading




Feature and Support images kindly provided by the University of Reading 

Support Image – watering plants: by 9lnw on Pixabay


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