Get them outside

Teaching sustainability: it’s easier than you think!

Helen Bilton has some practical tips for teaching ‘sustainability’ in a busy primary or early years school.

1. Get them outside, love the natural world and do things!

Nine out of ten teachers agree, climate change education should be compulsory in schools, yet seven out of ten feel ill-equipped to teach it. It can be a subject which overwhelms. And yet if we unpick what’s involved, it really needn’t be.

“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”.

I want to emphasise that sustainability does need child involvement. If you want the world to have a decent future you can only do this by allowing children to be in nature, learn about nature and come to want to protect it. And from an early age. As one child said:

‘You can’t touch a tree in a book’.

There is concern that some children are feeling overwhelmed by the issues concerning the world and feel helpless and scared. Rather than feed this emotion with doom and gloom, we can empower children to discover and care for the environment themselves, demonstrating through the school how you can do things to help. This can include not only the classic recycling but also composting, measuring waste from lunch and holding debates for older children about topics such as veganism. Children are perfectly capable of engaging with all these topics and activities.

Watch this short video about how one school deals with the issue of waste: Exploring waste in primary schools

2. Make sustainability one of the school’s ‘big ideas’

Sustainability cannot be taught discretely as a subject once a year or as part of science week, to have any lasting impact. It needs to be revisited almost daily, thereby embedding understanding. A good way to do this is by having a school where sustainability is part of the everyday. Montague Floreat School in Wokingham have six ‘big ideas’, one of which is sustainability. The whole curriculum has to cover these six big ideas whether you are teaching 3 or 11 year olds. (Click on the image to find out more)

In this way you can look at any topic through the lens of one of these six big ideas, which can be given a number of different dimensions:

  • Historically – how did other times deal with waste?
  • Geographically – why do we have deserts?
  • Musically – is there a link between music and sustainability?  And so on.

Staff cannot be experts about everything. So have people in to help with everything to do with sustainability such as the active travel officer, waste and recycling officers, meteorologists from a University and tree surgeons.

Have a look at this short video about how one school has built a culture of awareness about climate and sustainability: A culture of awareness

3. You’re already qualified to get outside

It is strange to find that some staff think you need some particular and additional qualification to work outside. You don’t. Some outdoor education courses charge a lot of money and then alongside this comes a proliferation of gatekeeping paradigms inspired by narratives of fear and risk, added to which there is the requirement to adhere to their rules and regulations, buy their kit. In this way these organisations subtly take ownership of being outdoors. A teaching qualification is at a much higher level than any course that is on offer about working outside. Therefore all teachers are more highly trained to teach outdoors, and that is what our job is about – teaching! Teachers know about health and safety and risk assessments. You do not need anyone telling you they know more!

Likewise do not make learning and teaching outside into ‘an event’. Outdoors is simply outside the building, through some doors. One of the teachers at Montague Floreat School says: ‘You don’t need a reason, you can just go outside’. Outdoors may be the better place to learn whatever you are trying to teach. And why not! So please take back your common sense and do not be blinded by commercial companies ‘selling the outdoors’.

View this short video about how teachers view using outside to teach:

Teacher perspective: Why take children outside to teach about climate

4. Do a few things well

There can be a tendency in a busy school to try and pack in everything that you are required to do and end up feeling utterly overwhelmed. It is better to take a subject such as ‘growing’ and follow this through to eating the produce. Rather than planting something, which then dies………plant a vegetable or fruit, tend it, harvest it and cook it. This will need the total involvement of the children, who can be in teams and take a patch of the garden each to tend over months, then harvest and finally cook a meal/dish to share with others. If they do not look after the patch, well, they will soon find out what then happens!

5. Get involved in an outdoors project

You could become part of the biodiversity citizen science projects. In this way children are learning to observe over time, so it becomes a long term immersive experience and this helps their learning and understanding stick. There are three types of projects:

  • Contributory projects – those designed by scientists, in which the role of participants is to collect or analyse data.
  • Collaborative projects – also designed by scientists, but with participants involved at various stages (eg collecting and analysing data or communicating findings).
  • Co-created projects – collaborative community partnerships.

I would start with a contributory project. Here are a few to think about:

British and International projects

  • Bioblitz which provides superb resources to help identify wild species in your area. You can upload biological information and photographs to an app which feeds into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, an open source database used by scientists and policy makers around the world.
  • Here’s another one for schools around the world as well in the UK: WOW! (the UK Met Office’s Weather Observation Website) Scientists need to build rich and reliable data, so let children be part of the science culture and do real research with purpose. On the Met Office Weather Observations website you are guided through the process of entering observations at any given time in your own locality. You can even make your own weather station Met Office guide .

These two are mainly British projects (but see if you can find similar ones where you are – e.g. the Birdwatch Ireland Garden Bird Survey)

  • Each year in the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) carries out a Big Schools’ Birdwatch. You can order a pack of resources to help with the research.
  • Nature’s Calendar is a citizen science project run by the Woodland Trust. Highly recommended is the date range poster that can be downloaded from the website and printed to go on a classroom wall. This gives the expected dates of a huge number of different events in the natural world that are recorded in the Nature’s calendar project. Children can use this as a prompt for which things to look out for during outdoor learning at different times of year.
6. Teaching sustainability: free online CPD from the University of Reading

Finally, for a wealth of information and help about how to embed sustainability into your school curriculum do visit: Teaching climate and sustainability in primary schools . This is a free online go-at-your-own-pace course which will empower both staff and children in schools. Now it’s up to you – but my strong advice is: if you want to teach sustainability, just get them outside!


Professor Helen Bilton has brought a wealth of experience from working as a teacher into training future teachers and now as Director PGCert Healthcare Education Programme.

She has written extensively on outdoor learning and her first book; Outdoor Learning in the Early Years, Management and Innovation was the first complete text on the subject since 1936. Since 1982, Professor Helen Bilton has researched and campaigned on the importance of learning outdoors.

“The importance of nature and the informality of teaching children outside resonated with me on a basic human level. Being able to embrace the outdoors and use it effectively as a source of inspiration and development is an incredible skill that we should all have.”


FEATURE IMAGE:  by Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images

Support Images:  by Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images, Olga from Pixabay, Montague Floreat School, University of Reading, Unsplash+ In collaboration with Diana Light & Markus Spiske on Unsplash




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