Sarah Watkins has taught every year group at primary level and was previously Head of School. She now teaches Reception. She regularly writes for Teach Early Years
The Magic in Everything
“My father taught me to see the magic in everything. Growing up, magic was in the sunrise and the rainfall. In every expression of life, no matter how small. I think that that was the most valuable wisdom that shaped who I was as a young boy. It gave me the perspective to see what was behind the dysfunction of our society, of our broken world, our dying ecosystems and corrupt leaders”
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Rolling Stone Magazine, November 2018.
Xiuhtezcatl (pronounced shoe-tez-caht) is an environmental activist who started speaking in public when he was just 6 years old. You can see his first public appearance here:
As a young child, Martinez was encouraged to appreciate the natural world and to protect it. In this TED talk, he speaks about the lack of connectedness we have with nature. Those who work with young children are skilled at providing nature-based education and nurturing a love of the natural environment, whether their setting has a forest or a tiny patch of grass. I’ve taught in every year group at primary level, and this focus on the natural environment in Early Years rarely continues during a child’s journey through school.
As a young child, Martinez was encouraged to appreciate the natural world and to protect it. In this TED talk, he speaks about the lack of connectedness we have with nature.
I recently focused on ‘greening’ my Early Years classroom and my teaching practice, and one of the key areas I prioritised was connecting the pupils with the natural world. Although we use our free-flow area daily, and we have weekly Forest School on site, I decided that the children would benefit from being outdoors even more.
A 2017 study found thatchildren with positive childhood experiences in nature (and particularly those who played in nature) are much more likely to cherish and protect nature when they become young adults.
It’s become a priority for me to surround the pupils with natural materials in their classroom. Plastic toys in the sand have been replaced by wooden scoops, pebbles and twigs. The compostable bath sponges in the water tray promote good discussion. Natural materials are used extensively in Early Years settings but it wasn’t until I did an audit of my classroom that I saw opportunities to improve further. For example, using an old brick with holes to house pencils provoked a spontaneous conversation between two pupils about what it was made of.
When auditing my classroom and my practices, I examined every inch of my classroom through ‘eco eyes’ and I stood back and observed all the processes that took place throughout the day. When I looked at my notes, there were four clear areas to focus on:
- Connect with the natural world
- Eco education
- Reduce negative impact
- Manage waste.
In addition to the other steps I’ve mentioned to address step one, gardening has also proved to be a great way to engage pupils in climate change discussion. I am notoriously bad at keeping house plants alive (even with the help of my pupils) but I have found that succulents are virtually indestructible. A succulent wall is my next planned project.
It’s clear from the short film of Xiuhtezcatl, aged 6, presenting to an audience, that he comes from a supportive, loving family, who have taught him to value the natural environment. But I do believe that the majority of young children would be able to speak this passionately about issues if they were given the relevant information at school. Eco education should give pupils the facts about climate change but also ideas for positive action. Recent research by Geiger, Gasper, Swim and Fraser demonstrates the importance of hope in educating children about climate change. They found through their studies that informal educators were able to have more effective discussions on climate change with children if they themselves felt hopeful about the situation and were able to voice ways to be helpful. Evidently, eco education of young children must have hope at its core. The picture book, ‘Someone Swallowed Stanley’ by Sarah Roberts, has a hopeful message and I used this book as the basis of a whole term’s teaching with Reception. Sarah was kind enough to connect with my class and she encouraged the pupils to send her questions about marine life and pollution, which she answered via video link. This topic enabled me to introduce many different eco themed picture books to the class and I’ve included a list of some of the books I used at the end of this blog. To boost eco education, environmental groups will often come and do free talks with groups. As part of my topic, the Marine Conservation Society brought a huge inflatable turtle called Tallulah when they visited, which elicited a collective gasp from my class! Eco education should help children make sense of environmental issues. It should enable them to relate the issues to their own experiences so that they can then take ownership of the issues.
Untangling the components of hope: Increasing pathways (not agency) explains the success of an intervention that increases educators’ climate change discussions, Geiger, Gasper, Swim, Fraser, December 2019, Journal of Environmental Psychology.
Researchers such as Mashford-Scott highlight the fact that redirecting responsibility to the children themselves is a key practice in facilitating children’s agency. When Promoting children’s agency in early childhood education, 2011. I decided that it was essential to involve the pupils right from the start. I told them about the problems that I had identified in class and they surprised me with their thoughtful (and sometimes radical!) solutions. Young children tend to be very black and white about issues and, in looking to reduce negative impact, they have now banned me from laminating! If I am being honest, I used to love to laminate. I shamefully remember spending the summer before my NQT year laminating pages and pages of display materials. Although I haven’t thrown away resources that I’d previously laminated, I’ve decided that nothing in the classroom really needs to be sealed in plastic. Document and bookmark sleeves work well for resources. For maths and English boards, I painted wooden offcuts with blackboard paint and wrote on them with chalk pens. Pupils’ names in the cloakroom are on wood slices by their pegs which makes a great gift to go home at the end of the year.
‘Think before you print’ has become a mantra, and switching to Tapestry for assessment has significantly cut down on my printing. Paper is now used on both sides. Glue sponges have become a game changer and one of my parent volunteers has even made some for her home! They last much longer than glue sticks (and you don’t have to hunt down lids!). After discussing in class the impact of using too many paper towels and running the taps for too long, positive changes have been made. There used to be a pile of paper towels around the bin but now the pupils are happy to share the single hand dryer.
My class are also vociferously involved in managing waste in my classroom. Now that I have explained the negative impact of ignoring this issue, the children are completely passionate about our new recycling systems. Organic waste from snack time now goes into a small composting box in the classroom and is then transferred into a larger compost bin outside or into the wormery. The children manage the classroom waste recycling centre and will loudly and excitedly remove any recyclable materials from the landfill bin.
Experiencing a pandemic has prompted many of us to think about changes we might make when this is over. Having some time away from the 100 mile an hour teaching days has reinforced my belief that teaching about climate change in Early Years is absolutely vital.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez speaks about seeing “the magic in everything…in the sunrise and the rainfall. In every expression of life, no matter how small.” Young children do see this. Let’s encourage them to keep seeing the magic and to remind the adults around them of the magic in everything.
List of books on eco education
- The Tale of a Toothbruth by M. G. Leonard
- The Big Blue by Yuval Zommer
- Greta and the Giants by Zoe Tucker
- Tidy by Emily Gravett
- Recycling by Jess Stockham
- Dear Greenpeace by Simon James
- George Saves the World by Lunchtime by Dr Jo Readman
- What a Waste by Jess French
- A Planet Full of Plastic by Neal Layton
- Charlie and Lola: Look after your planet
- Great paper caper by Oliver Jeffers
- The Nature Corner by M. Van Leeuwen
- Where Does the Garbage Go? By P. Showers
- Why Should I Recycle? by J. Green
- The Three R’s by N. Roca
- I Can Save the Earth! By A. Inches
- The Adventures of a Plastic Bottle by A. Inches
- 10 Things I Can Do To Help My World by M. Walsh