Sustainable practices in early childhood settings: water awareness
by Wendy Boyd on March 15
Early childhood educators who support children to appreciate and care for the world’s natural environment are fulfilling the goals to demonstrate respect for the environment and develop understanding of the significance of the world’s environment for the children. The state of the world’s environment is frequently in the global news with topics such as climate change; plastic waste; energy use; and the land, water and atmospheric systems being discussed daily. Early childhood educators are in a powerful position to bring about change, one step at a time with the children in their early childhood centre. The children’s futures depend upon the state of the environment, so educators have a twofold responsibility: caring for the environment in the ‘here and now’, and educating children of the importance of their actions on the environment. Such action taken by educators will enable children to be responsible for the environment.
This article will provide and discuss guidelines for enacting sustainable practices in relation to water awareness. Water consumption and water conservation are of particular importance around the world as water is essential to life on earth. Water is a finite resource in the world being held within the water cycle. The availability of water significantly affects livelihoods of people including for drinking, household use, farming and industrial processes.
While most water in Australia is drinkable ‘straight out of the tap’ in some countries around the world availability of clean water is a major health concern. The World Health Organisation (2018) reports that only 71% of the world’s 56 billion people have access to safe drinking water. Water is also essential for plants and animals lives, and the quality of the water is important. Recently the large fish kills in the Murray-Darling River system in Australia led to national discussion regarding drought and over-extraction of water by farmers (Australian Broadcasting Commission [ABC], 2019). This fish-kill event highlights the need for careful management in achieving a balance between competing water demands (Davis, Miller, Boyd & Gibson, 2008).
To implement sustainable practices regarding water awareness educators need to have a good understanding of the water cycle, and water management. Educators need not only know about sustainable practices, they also need to have a commitment to a ‘personal environmental ethic’ (Tilbury, 1995, p. 201) and develop dispositions for behavioural change to act sustainably (Boyd, Under review). What are sustainable practices about water awareness and how do we engage children in learning about them? What pedagogical practices can be used and why? Children will want to know where water comes from- certainly it comes ‘out of the tap’ but how does the water get into the tap?
Research demonstrates that early childhood settings in Australia have struggled to enact sustainable practices within their programs (Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority [ACECQA], 2018; Productivity Commission, 2014). The National Quality Standards (NQS) that guide educators’ practices in early childhood settings in Australia require educators to care ‘for the environment and support children to become environmentally responsible’ (ACECQA, 2018, p. 198). The results of assessment and rating of the NQS indicate that early childhood centres are failing to embed sustainable practices. Early childhood centres were found to be not likely to meet Standard 3.3 that includes ‘Sustainable practices are embedded in service operations’; and ‘Children are supported to become environmentally responsible and show respect for the environment (ACECQA, 2018, p. 7).
Guidelines for supporting sustainable practices regarding water awareness
Water is all around us, and needed on a daily basis by people so it is easy to make connections with children. Educators need to have an understanding of the water cycle, and share this understanding with the children. Figure 1 illustrates the water cycle in the environment.
Figure 1: The water cycle (Rous Water, 2015)
- Educators can talk about the role of clouds, rivers, the ocean, and evaporation of water back into clouds. All children will be familiar with clouds, and rain, so educators can draw upon the children’s knowledge to discuss this figure. Most children will be familiar with rivers, the ocean and plants. Discussing plants’ need for water to live can be brought to life by growing seeds/ caring for plants in the early childhood centre. Many centres have vegetable gardens, and when gardening educators can discuss the significance of water in the life of plants and animals.
- Another activity that informs children about the water cycle is to leave water out to evaporate, and encourage children to hypothesise what will happen to the water in the sun, in the shade, and overnight. Children can predict how long water will take to evaporate. Different sized containers could also be used, and hypotheses generated and tested.
- Water needs to be stored so that people can use it all of the time. In cities and towns there are usually large dams outside of the city/town that catch and store the water. In rural areas, and some towns, homes and early childhood centres have water tanks where water is collected from rain that falls on the roof. Educators are encouraged to find out with the children where their water storage facility is, and then follow up with finding out with the children how the water gets into the dam or the water tank.
- Following on from discussion of the storage of water, the educators and children can consider how the water gets to the tap in the bathroom, kitchen and outdoor garden taps in the early childhood centre and in their homes for their drinking, watering gardens, washing and other uses. Investigations like this will include discussion of water pipes, and there are many websites, and books that illustrate these concepts. Sandpits and water trays can include hoses so that children develop understanding of the properties of water as it runs through hoses/pipes.
- Water needs purifying for drinking for health reasons. In Australia most water supplies to towns have a filtration system. Educators and children can investigate how filtration of water occurs so that dam water can become drinking water. Throughout this exploration educators and children will aim to develop a deep appreciation for water. As water is a finite resource then educators can lead children to think about what happens when water runs out? Australia is an arid country, and water conservation is very important. Drought affects farmers- their crops, and their animals. The News on television often has visual information on drought in Australia. What does it mean to conserve/save water and engage in sustainable water awareness practices especially in relation to a drought affected country? How can educators and children save water? Discussions with children can assist educators to understand what children know, and where action can be taken.
- Remember that educators are in a powerful position to model, demonstrate, and engage children in learning about sustainable water practices. Educators with children can undertake a ‘water audit’ identifying where water is used in the early childhood centre, and whether water is used wisely. For example in identifying that children and educators wash their hands, after toileting, before eating, and after blowing one’s nose, then children can consider how to ensure the centre is using water wisely, and not wasting it.The educator might talk with the children about how to wash hands without wasting water. First getting the soap ready, then turning on the tap, and counting up to five while washing each side of one’s hands: then promptly turning off the tap. Sometimes taps drip and need to have the tap washers replaced. Flushing of toilets can be discussed, and educators should ensure that there is a half and full flush clearly labelled so that children understand these uses.
- People drink water, and use it for cooking, cleaning, and for gardening. So what are some sustainable practices to conserve water in these activities? For example when having a drink of water and the child does not want to drink it all then encourage the child to tip it on the garden. When children are gardening and watering the plants talk about how much water is required. The book Water watcher’s big book about water (Rous Council, 2015), which is freely downloadable form the Rous Council website explains how children can be ‘water watchers’, where children
“watch, feel and listen. They watch for drips, they feel the tap is turned off tight and they listen for drips. Water watchers keep their ears and eyes open, they listen and watch for water wasting; like taps dripping, toilets leaking or hoses left on.” (p.8)
- Saving water is also associated with energy use. In towns and cities water has to be pumped from a dam/reservoir to the home and the early childhood centre. This requires energy. How do pumps work? What makes pumps work? An investigation will identify that pumps are usually run by electricity. Where does electricity come from? Is electricity created by solar, fossil fuel, wind thermal or hydro power? So here we have an opportunity to investigate further authentic learning around sustainable practices.
- Children can learn about the importance of water for the world’s plants and animals. For example where do fish live? This can be in rivers, or the ocean. What happens to the fish if the water is dirty? What happens if the water dries up out of the river? These are legitimate concerns and children can understand these issues. It is helpful to talk with children about such issues. Discussions around how water becomes dirty can lead onto waste in the environment. The giant island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean is a huge cause for concern for the state of the world’s water, sea-life and the environment (Ocean Cleanup, 2018). Educators have an opportunity to discuss sustainable practices with children, and help children realise that their actions have an impact upon the planet.
Children can be powerful educators of other people- they can take home their knowledge and apply it. For example they can talk to their families about saving water in the home by having short showers, using a bucket to water gardens and wash cars, instead of hoses. A study conducted by Davis, Miller, Boyd and Gibson (2008) of educators and children’s water awareness in early childhood centres in Australia found that children act as change agents and make significant contributions to sustainable water practices outside of the centre. Partnerships formed with families provide solid foundations for sharing sustainable water practices.
Early childhood centres can model sustainable practices in the centre that conserve water, reduce waste and minimise energy consumption. Build policies and practices into the everyday philosophy of the centre so that staff, families and the community know where you stand. As an educator find out about climate change and sustainability issues—seek current, reliable information about the state of the planet. In Australia there are early childhood environmental education networks. Find out how to join and become campaigners and co-learners with colleagues, and the community. Engaging with children in sustainable water practices is good practice for now and the future of the planet.
Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), (2019). ‘Drought, climate change and mismanagement’:
What experts think caused the death of a million Menindee fish. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2019-01-16/what-caused-menindee-fish-kill-drought-water-mismanagement/10716080
Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA), (2018). National quality
standards. Retrieved from https://www.acecqa.gov.au/nqf/national-quality-standard
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Davis, J., Miller, M., Boyd, W., & Gibson, M. (2008). The impact and potential of water education in
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