In the depths of the COVID pandemic, I wanted to (and needed to) look forward. The national narrative was depressing and hopeless, yet the children in our nurseries were alive and made the staff feel positive. I wanted to capture that sense of optimism and the children’s ‘joie de vivre’ so I began writing my new book: 50 Fantastic Ideas for Sustainability (which I co-authored with my colleague, Nick Corlett) alongside the supporting qualification about the same topic.

At LEYF, sustainability is central to our social enterprise approach; having a sustainable business model that means you can deliver your social purpose in an environmentally sustainable way. The slogan you sometimes see is “Profit, People, Planet”.

Every setting needs to ask their own question about sustainability and start from there. Change is more successful if it’s small and steady with a plan to embed it. We have a Sustainability Lead across the organisation and the idea behind the qualification was to train an Eco Champion at each LEYF’s 42 nurseries to lead the change in their setting.

Change is much more successful when someone desires it and can help colleagues understand what they need to know in order to apply it. The Eco Champion then reinforces this change with the support of the decision-makers, usually the managers!

We began our research by examining the United Nations General Assembly (2015) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These 17 interlinked global goals are designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all” and a helpful framework to align your own sustainability goals. However, given there are seventeen – you may choose not to focus on all of them but on those most relevant.


For example, the LEYF business model is designed to address child poverty (SDG1). The early years sector all respond to SDG4 requirement for quality education and the focus of this article aligns with SDG12 and our impact on the planet from decisions we talk about, the resources we use, how we use them and then how we dispose of our waste.

Remember, every small change that is embedded is a success, and things will not slip back. For example, in 2018 we really examined how we could use our gardens better. We even wrote a book to share practical ideas because as nurseries based all across London, we don’t have huge gardens. Some are quirky, others are near busy roads, one is on a rooftop and the other is in a basement. However, we wanted to do what Thomas Weaver calls ‘connect with the poetry of our own back yards’.

By 2019, we had banned all single-use plastics such as gloves, aprons and shoe covers and replaced them with alternatives but when COVID crashed into our lives all efforts seemed to halt and plastic was back with a PPE vengeance. So, we had to take another path. If we couldn’t continue our changes, then the best way to prepare is to teach staff to understand what we could do to make us a more sustainable organisation. We designed a qualification in partnership with Cache; the Level 4 Qualification in Sustainability in the Early Years. So far, 20 staff have completed it, another 20 have been recruited and we hope to open up to the sector from September 2021.

Sometimes all you need to do is re-frame the way you explain things. For example, we banned glitter a long time ago. Why? Because it’s very harmful for the environment, especially as much of it ends up in the ocean hurting our sea life. When staff understood this, they became very creative about alternatives. The thing to remember in the early years sector is that we are constantly employing and training new staff and therefore our explanations are never finished. Change is continual so therefore knowledge to reinforce this change is essential.

To support this, our new book demonstrates to practitioners that being sustainable is not complicated and can be integrated into every setting’s routine and practice. Some people think young children are unable to understand about their environment but I disagree. Children are much more competent and thoughtful than we give them credit. Indeed, if sustainable development is relevant to children’s lives, then we need to prepare them for their role in dealing with the problems they are facing.

Teaching children requires adults to be able to explain things to them using a variety of tactics. It’s about using resources and our environment as a teaching tool, making new ideas accessible and interesting and then scaffolding and extending our children’s abilities and confidence. We do this in many ways but particularly through multi-layered cross-curricular activities - stuff you do every day such as playing, singing, music, dance, art, conversations, reading and gardening. The list is endless!

Education is a very powerful pathway to sustainability, but it depends on adults who understand how to integrate sustainability into every element of their leadership, pedagogy and operational practice. Think about framing your approach around these 8 R’s:


Sustainability is holistic. It is central to the child’s whole experience of life and needs to be part of a broad and inclusive quality education. We cannot continue to treat our planet with disregard and force our children to inherit the predicted catastrophic 2050. Those of us leading in ECEC have a duty to future-proof as much as possible and should learn how to tread lightly on the planet. Let’s all join together and do our bit. Every little helps.

About the author:

June O’Sullivan MBE is Chief Executive of the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), one of the UK’s largest charitable childcare social enterprises which currently runs 42 nurseries across twelve London boroughs.

An inspiring speaker, author and regular media commentator on early years, social business and child poverty, June has been instrumental in achieving a major strategic, pedagogical and cultural shift for the award-winning London Early Years Foundation, resulting in an increased profile, a new childcare model and a stronger social impact over the past ten years.


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