Caring for people and the planet : preschool children’s knowledge and practices of sustainability

Sammanfattning: Children across the globe today are continuously being exposed to and affected by various kinds of real-world complexities and challenges; however, research on their knowledge and practices in terms of sustainability is limited, in particular with regards to how preschool- and home-related factors are associated with their learning for sustainability. Since 1998, different types of eco-certification have been awarded by the Swedish National Agency for Education and Keep Sweden Tidy Foundation to promote education for sustainability (EfS) in all areas of education and learning. Despite certificates having been granted in Sweden since 1998, no studies have been conducted at the national level to investigate whether eco-certification has any role to play in children’s learning for environmental and sustainability issues. This knowledge is important to develop pedagogical activities to engage young children meaningfully in learning for sustainability at preschool. This study was undertaken so as to address this research gap in a Swedish context.The overall aim of this study was to enhance the existing knowledge about preschool children’s learning for sustainability in Sweden. The objectives of this study have been to investigate and compare the knowledge and self-reported practices of sustainability among children attending eco-certified and non-eco-certified preschools, respectively, and to explore the extent to which preschool- and home-related factors are associated with children’s knowledge and practices of sustainability. Further, this study explored children’s perceived sources of such knowledge. The term ‘knowledge’ in this text refers to the descriptions of children’s ideas and thoughts. Similarly, eco-certified preschool refers to a school that work explicitly with EfS.The study was designed from a "child’s perspective": this means that it was designed by adults to understand children’s perceptions and actions. Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory and Bruner’s (1961) iconic (image-based) modes of representation were applied in various stages of the study. A conceptual framework was developed within the three-interlocking-circles model of sustainability that illustrates how environmental, social and economic dimensions are interconnected. The concept of sustainability was operationalized in four themes: economic equality, resource sharing, recycling and transport use.With the use of illustrations and semi-structured questions, final-year preschool children (n=53), aged five to six years, and the directors (n=7) at six eco-certified and six non-eco-certified preschools were interviewed, while guardians (n=89) and teachers (n=74) filled out questionnaires. Qualitative and quantitative data were analyzed using content analysis and Orthogonal Partial Least Squares Discriminant Analysis (OPLS-DA), respectively. The quality and complexity of children’s responses were assessed and classified using the SOLO Taxonomy (Biggs & Collis, 1982).The results showed that by the time the children completed preschool, many had acquired some knowledge about how to use money, about the sorting of different recyclable items at home and at preschool, and about the impact of different modes of transport on the environment and people’s lives. They also had ideas about the lives of other children in the world and what it can mean to share resources with other people. There was a positive relationship between children’s declarative (understanding) and functional (practice) knowledge of sustainability issues and the involvement of teachers and guardians in sustainability-related discussions and activities. No statistically significant differences between eco-certified and non-eco-certified preschools in terms of children’s declarative and functional knowledge were found. Parents were reported to be the main sources of children’s knowledge along with the children themselves, teachers and media.The findings offer support for integrating environmental, social and economic dimensions of sustainability into the daily pedagogical activities of preschools and for giving children opportunities to participate in discussions and practical activities that concern their lives. Further studies are needed to investigate the extent to which different educational activities contribute to developing children’s understanding and behavior when it comes to a sustainable society.