Acting Out Sustainability by Clarysly Deller

How can sustainability education be effectively delivered to children in primary schools in England? Learning to look after our world and living in a way respectful to each other and the environment is one of the most important aspects of a child’s learning. We are all change-makers, so how can we train our youngsters to develop empathy for our environment?


In designing teaching for this agenda, I have had to refine and crystallise my own thinking about world issues, and my place within them. It is not enough to just tell children about an environmental issue, or live our own lives as if world issues are someone else’s problem, we must practice what we preach.

Primary Schools in England already incorporate quite a bit of sustainability education, but not in a joined-up way. There are many schools which have eco-clubs, grow plants or recycle waste and litter-pick, in fact over 70% of the 24,000 primary schools in England have registered with Eco-schools, with over 1,200 gaining the top eco-schools green award.

The picture throughout the UK is quite variable though, with England and Northern Ireland lagging behind Scotland and Wales in their policies for sustainable education, the narrower emphasis on joined-up policy inhibiting the wider adoption of good practice (UNESCO, 2013 p. 3).

Much of the work to do with the planet and sustainability in England is contained within clubs and extra-curricular activities, or during specific science lessons, rather than being a whole-school ethos, yet there are many national curriculum objectives which lend themselves to teaching for sustainability.

Sustainability education has rather nebulous definitions, stated broadly by the Bruntland commission as being development that “…meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Brundtland, 1987).

Barlow suggests more, that children need to experience the natural world, knowing where we live, how life is sustained and the consequences of how we feed ourselves and learning from our communities (Stone, 2010 p34). It is within these frameworks that I plan to give examples which “…turn the broad conceptual and often philosophical ideals of education for sustainability into specific elements of effective teaching practice.” (Nolet, 2017).

Some of Victor Nolet’s writings have been influential in shaping my thinking. He describes how education for sustainability is not just teaching certain sustainability subjects and issues, but that it should incorporate a whole style of teaching including the seven key concepts in teaching for sustainability.

It should employ effective assessment for learning which helps teachers manage differences among students and advance all of their learning. It should involve collaborative work that is enquiry-based and be active, involving participatory, experiential learning and revolving around the child.

This learning should sit in the real world, exploring every-day problems and incorporating learning that happens outside the classroom in the local community (Nolet, 2015). I have long had a passion for using children to resource their own learning via pupil voice activities and tapping into the resources every school has available on their doorstep. Sustainability education is certainly relevant to primary education.

In my experience, children love to solve problems. They rise to the challenge of collaborative learning and powerfully engage when learning is situated in their own contexts. Sustainability education is an obvious way of delivering learning which encompasses all aspects of the child’s life. In looking at “…the teaching and learning processes that enable students to develop their own capacity to think critically and creatively in the face of global sustainability challenges and, secondly, to act collaboratively in ways that pursue more hopeful and sustainable futures.” (Wyness, 2015) I advocate involving problem-based learning. Even young children, faced with a problem, will find creative ways to solve it. They can come up with ideas that they can use in their own sphere, which can have a ripple effect for further change.

In my previous work as a midwife working in developing countries, I have been acutely aware of the imbalances and inequalities of our world, but also the immense beauty of nature and the deep wisdom held by many in what is often described as uneducated or living in primitive communities. Both Nolet and Sterling talk about how your purposes for teaching education for sustainability derive from a personal world view affecting every element of teaching practice. Knowing why it is important to you will help in knowing what and how to teach it (Sterling, 2010; Nolet, 2016).

This has brought me to explore our place in history, and how, when looking at sustainability, it is important to look back as well as forward. I have come to value the contributions our ancestors have made to our current learning and what a good learning resource story-telling and drama, which brings alive the past, can be.

Children will be the guardians of the planet – indeed they currently affect it and their choices and knowledge will shape the future path of our world. It is therefore vital to educate children about how the world works, what affects the many eco-systems in it, and how we alter and impact the world and its inhabitants by our actions. UNESCO, in their final report on the decade for sustainability said “Quality education for sustainable development is about what people learn, its relevance to today’s world and global challenges, and how learners develop the skills and attitudes to respond to such challenges and prosper, now and for future generations” (UNESCO, 2014 p. 21).

I would add into this the importance of learning from past generations, to inform our present actions and give us a resource to better tackle future demands. Children need to understand the context and influence of the past, how we can learn from it in the present and use it to inform a brighter future. We also need to ensure that they understand that even small change is important, and it is not just an issue for someone else to take on, or governments to legislate for, caring for our world and each other is a personal daily choice.

In Water’s paper “Trees talk, are you listening?” he describes how using narrative and language play can draw children in using a story-walk to entice children’s imaginations to grow, curiosity and wonder being enhanced. Drawing from this idea, I have developed the use of dramatic story-telling and hands-on activities to engage children and develop their understanding of issues such as bio-diversity or natural selection.

I have also used the reading of dramatic monologues of scientists as ways of entering a topic, with children “pretending” to go back in time and experience the world how it once was.

Children can play out their ideas to test their understanding of the world. They start to develop empathy with nature, nurturing a new form of ecological literacy (Waters, 2011). I will share with you an example of sustainability teaching that I have used in the classroom which incorporates Nolet’s ideas of powerful pedagogies and Water’s ideas of linking anthropomorphic attitudes to science so supporting children’s ability to connect and build attachments with the natural world. I aim to demonstrate some of the pedagogical approaches which could be used in primary schools to forward a sustainability agenda.

The primary science curriculum in England has many areas ripe for bearing sustainability fruit. Plants, habitats and ecosystems feature strongly, even at Key Stage One, and I have developed teaching processes which make some of these concepts real and practical to the children, walking them through stories which help them to make sense of what can be abstract ideas, via practical initiatives. I have developed the use of drama techniques and hands-on activities to engage children and develop their understanding of issues such as bio-diversity or natural selection.

I have also used dramatic monologues of scientists from the past as ways of entering a topic in order to place their learning in context and learn from the attitudes and activities of scientists who had a conscience for safeguarding the planet. A focus on sustainability can enhance and enrich the teaching. I have attached an example lesson plan using the American biologist George Washington-Carver as an example.



Nolet, V. (2015) ‘Powerful pedagogies’, in Educating for Sustainability Principles and practices for teachers. Taylor and Francis, pp. 125–141. Available at: Created.

Nolet, V. (2016) Educating for Sustainability Principles and Practices for Teachers. Edited by V. Nolet. New York & Abingdon: Routeledge.

Sterling, S. (2010) ‘Learning for resilience, or the resilient learner? Towards a necessary reconciliation in a paradigm of sustainable education’, Environmental Education Research, 16(5), pp. 511–528. doi: 10.1080/13504622.2010.505427.

UNESCO (2014) Shaping the Future We Want UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development. 2005-2014 Final Report., United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Paris. doi: 10.5363/tits.11.4_46.

Waters, P. (2011) ‘Trees Talk: Are You Listening? Nature, Narrative and Children’s Anthropocentric Place-Based Play’, Children, Youth and Environments, 21(211), pp. 243–252. doi: 10.7721/chilyoutenvi.21.1.0243.

Wyness, L. (2015) ‘Education for Sustainable Development Pedagogy: Criticality, Creativity and Collaboration’, PedRIO with Plymouth University, 8(April). Available at: Pages/PedRIO-Occasional-Papers.aspx (Accessed: 26 February 2017).