Transforming Early Education: Empowering Sustainable Communities

The Sustainable Development Goals 

In 2015 in Paris, the global community of Heads of State and Government representatives gathered as part of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly. A key element of the session was the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with objectives to form a sustainable and universal programme with the active support of UNESCO. The SDGs formed a holistic interconnected programme that covered health, care, education, industry, community, peace, and gender equality. For example, SDG 4 represented Quality education with a recognition of early childhood as a universal right for all children. SDG 11 highlighted the need for all cities and communities to be sustainable with an emphasis on safety, resilience, and inclusion. These three components from SDG 11 resonate with the Early Years Framework (DfE, 2024;7) which acknowledges a “secure, safe, and happy childhood is important in its own right. Good parenting and high-quality early learning provide the foundation children need to fulfil their potential.”  This article will focus on socio-cultural sustainability through the community as it has its roots in the foundations of early childhood.  

Sustainability And Pedagogical Approaches 

The Reggio Emilia philosophy promoted a social constructivist theoretical underpinning where both adult and child would be co-constructing and co-learning together. Early Childhood pioneering giants Steiner and Montessori also advocated for all learners and learning environments to reflect a ‘community of learners’. For example, Steiner recognised the adult in the early childhood setting was the role model who must lead a sustainable lifestyle promoting social, economic, and environmental values. Traditionally in England children in early childhood settings are usually seen as needing to be protected and cared for with the adult taking a more dominant position in learning situations with children listening attentively and responding. Roger Hart however asks practitioners to reflect on whether a child needs ‘protecting’ and why can’t children be protagonists of their rights. Socio-cultural sustainability advocates for all children to be empowered and be able to critically reflect upon societal issues and practitioners must be able to feel confident to discuss key topics sensitively. Montessori considered that children as young as three could discuss and experience aspects of social justice ensuring within the practice, early years children are listened to authentically and are decision-makers.  

Socio-Sustainability In Practice 

So, is this easy to do in practice? How can practitioners apply socio-sustainability into their settings, so children feel valued, and listened to and that they feel part of the cultural community of learners within the nursery? There are supporting documents that are available for practitioners to download for free to use in their settings and help them understand and apply the 17 SDGs into practice. Sustainability Matters in Early Childhood is on the DfE website and highlights the importance of children’s rights linking to both the 17 SDGs and UNCRC 1989. Within this document, there are practical examples of how diverse early years settings have embedded SDG 13 Climate Action into their practice follow the link to find both Sustainability Matters and also a useful strategy from LEYF on how to embed sustainability  – Sustainability leadership and climate action plans in education – GOV.UK ( 

The other available resource to download demonstrates how practitioners can embed both the SDGs and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into practice  – 2652636223 Early Years Sustainability Resource.pdf  This resource will provide an introduction to the SDGs and practical provocations to encourage children to be part of a socio-cultural community that questions and critiques societal issues. An example from the resource draws on a sensitive topic that resonates with a lot of children today – food poverty and food banks. How do practitioners engage with these topics sensitively taking into consideration the socio-economic characteristics of the children within their setting?  

The starting point could be reading together the text It’s a No Money Day by Kate Milner which highlights the difficult situation Mum is in – she works hard but some days the cupboard and fridge are bare. Practitioners must follow the children’s thinking and questions as they read the story together because to some children this could be a reality. This is important and reminds practitioners of the need to know the children and families in your community. Because other children in the setting may never have had to consider where their next dinner is coming from.  Discussing such complex issues as food poverty raises further questions and as practitioners, you need to follow them. It could lead to children reflecting upon why supermarkets have boxes to fill with food at the checkouts – who are they for? Where does the food go? By following the thinking of the children, for example, the possibility of visiting a food bank should be considered. Children can process these experiences and make informed decisions with safe and knowledgeable practitioners. Back at the setting practitioners could highlight food poverty by opening their lunch boxes and revealing no food inside and this again can lead to children starting to develop an awareness of empathy and understanding that not all children are fortunate.   

In a child case study using the book It’s a No Money Day the children as a result visited a food bank and met with volunteers distributing food. The children learnt how the food was shared to try to ensure all children were able to have food in their tummies resonating with SDG 1 No Poverty, SDG 2 Zero Hunger and SDG Good Health and Wellbeing. Reflecting upon their experiences they started to notice situations in their community – and ask questions. For example, why is that man sleeping in a doorway? Does he not have a home?  They also started to realise no food could mean no home or no Christmas presents. The setting engaged with parents and the community because of the initial reading of this text and the children wanted to ensure other children in their locality who were less fortunate had Christmas presents and so contributed to the local charity collecting at the time. SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities highlight the need for an inclusive and safe locality and the children in this example tried to demonstrate this goal through their empathetic community support. All the 17 SDGs are interconnected and holistic reflecting the holistic approach of early childhood, nothing is in isolation.  

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