Young children in many early childhood settings around the world are demonstrating their awareness of the impact they may have on the environment, and consequently developing a disposition towards a more sustainable way of living (Elliott, 2010). A 5-year-old in Ireland reportedly explained to an international research group that sustainability means "to save the world for later" (OMEP 26th World Congress, Sweden, 2010), and yet many adults still struggle with these sustainability concepts and practices, and indeed question if we should be "teaching this sort of content" to young children (Cutter-Mackenzie & Edwards, 2006). However, environmental education in early childhood is a field of research and practice that is growing in the understanding of the capacity of young children to learn about sustainability (Hagglund & Pramling Samuelsson, 2009) and its associated knowledge areas such as biodiversity. How this capacity aligns with the use of different types of pedagogical play in early childhood education forms the focus of this article.
Children's learning about sustainability in early childhood settings is important because research shows that attitudes towards the environment are formed during the early years (Pearson & Degotardi, 2009). However, the uptake of environmental education in early childhood settings has been slow in both Australia (Elliott & Davis, 2009; McNichol, Davis, & O'Brien, 2011) and New Zealand (Prince, 2010). Elliott and Davis (2009) attribute this slow uptake to the misplaced perception that the fate of the planet might be "too dire" a concept for young children to cope with (p. 71). More recently, early childhood education has been identified as an appropriate starting point for learning about the environment and sustainability (Davis et al., 2009; Elliott, 2010). For example, Duhn (2012) suggests that early childhood sites are the best possible places for fostering a disposition towards the care of the environment because they provide children with opportunities to learn about the environment as "early as possible" (p. 20). She acknowledges, however, a potential problem to this suggestion as, traditionally, early childhood education has been seen as providing a "time of childhood innocence" where teachers have shielded children by "steering away from complex knowledge" (p. 20). Duhn (2012) argues that it is time to move beyond this way of thinking and to work collaboratively with others so that children are provided with opportunities to learn about the environment and sustainability in appropriate ways. Her argument is supported by research that shows it is possible for teachers to positively engage young children in learning about sustainability (Pramling Samuelsson & Kaga, 2008), and to become "problem seekers, problem solvers and action takers in their own environment" (Elliott & Davis, 2009, p. 71).
Prince's (2010) work shows that learning is supported when sustainability is integrated into the early childhood curriculum as a specific goal. In this way, particular learning outcomes, knowledge, skills and attitudes can be developed that support learning about sustainability in the context of the early childhood curriculum. Mackey's (2011) child participatory study in New Zealand also showed that children, teachers and families can work together on environmental projects within their communities in ways that support children's learning about sustainability. Additional research confirms these findings and shows that children are capable of understanding complex ideas about the environment, particularly when suitable play-based pedagogies are used (Pressoir, 2008). Whilst sustainability appears to have an increased presence in early childhood education, a particular problem for early childhood teachers lies in understanding how to use play-based pedagogies to help children learn about sustainability. …