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Making sustainability more than an ‘add on’

This is really crucial in my opinion. By embedding sustainability into a wide variety of topics across the curriculum, children better understand its importance and see the links between sustainability and various aspects of people’s lives for themselves. In my experience, this works best if children are initially introduced to the concept of sustainability and understand the importance of things like ‘Reduce’, ‘Reuse’ and ‘Recycle’, so it’s a good idea to have some standalone lessons to introduce these concepts first. Once children understand what sustainability is and its importance to them and the wider world, we can draw out links in various topics we teach and not just limit it to a token ‘environment’ unit of study.

For example, I have asked children to monitor their water consumption when looking at daily routines, they kept a water diary over a week and the looked at ways of reducing their consumption of water. Children enjoy lessons related to special days in the calendar. I had the children engage in an enjoyable lead up to Halloween by planting and growing pumpkins in our classes, this obviously needs forward planning, but the children love it. Meat Free Mondays can be introduced when looking at food and diet, and children can design dream ‘ eco-homes’ when studying about houses around the world. There are many links that can be made, and as children become more familiar with issues of sustainability, they will start to make these links themselves.

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Involving parents and caregivers

Children tend to do this themselves. For example, they sometimes put pressure on their family to recycle or say no to plastic bags. As teachers, we can also think of ways to include parents / caregivers and extend what we do beyond the classroom. When we grew pumpkins in class, I gave all my learners a couple of pumpkin seeds to take home, and many of them planted them with their families. This gave them a talking point every week when they came to class, telling me how many leaves their pumpkin had. Most of the parents / caregivers seemed to enjoy this home-school link.

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Avoiding children getting upset about environmental issues

With primary learners, it’s important to focus on things that they can take action on so that they feel empowered. For example, when we learned about the 3Rs I enabled the children to create classroom signs, e.g. “Remember to turn off the lights”, “Keep the A/C on 25 Degrees” etc. This led to saying no to plastic bags and straws. With a multilingual group of children at an international school in Thailand, we started by learning how to say no to plastic bags in Thai using a Trash Heroes video and then each language group taught the rest of the class how to say no to plastic bags in their own language. This is was a really enjoyable and inclusive activity that emphasised the global nature of environmental issues. In my experience, children are often aware of issues such as air pollution and are happy to learn how to be more proactive, e.g. using apps like AirVisual that check AQI levels and learning about steps they can take to protect themselves and ways they can help solve the problem.

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Positive impact

A good example is a Thai boy in my class a couple of years ago who was very polite and respectful. On a school field trip, he said to me, “You teach us about sustainability, but why is everything in our packed lunches wrapped in plastic?” He had a point, and I had previously questioned this. I asked if I could take a video of him saying this with the big pile of plastic rubbish and send it to the head of school, which he agreed to. His action led to big changes in how hundreds of school packed lunches were packaged after this. Teaching learners about sustainability really can make a difference. And helping give the children in our classes a voice is what primary English teaching is all about.

All photographs of children under 18 included in this blog post were accompanied with signed parental / caregiver consent in line with IATEFL YLTSIG’s child protection and safeguarding obligations.

Clyde Fowle
Clyde Fowle

Clyde is a freelance ELT author and teacher trainer based in Thailand. He was previously the Director of the Intensive English Programme at Prem International School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. You can see a recording of Clyde’s Q&A session during the 2019 IATEFL YLTSIG annual web conference on this topic here: https://youtu.be/p0Hd0db7VgY