Sustainability education starts in early years: Grounding ecological lifestyles and ‘glocal’ mentalities

sustainability education
© Dmitry Naumov

Elin Eriksen Ødegaard, Director and Professor in Early Childhood Pedagogy, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, discusses why grounding ecological lifestyles and ‘glocal’ mentalities in early years is key to sustainability education

While the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl based in Bergen, Norway, is sailing the world for ocean climate research, called ‘The One Ocean Expedition’, a minor exploratory sustainability project is also beginning. ‘One Ocean − Ocean Portraits’ is an early-years’ arts and research project for and with four-year-olds affiliated with the global-reach ‘One Ocean Expedition’. ‘Ocean Portraits’ involves children, early- years’ teachers, artists and researchers in Bergen, Norway, and Shanghai, China.

When the tall ship Statsraad Lehmkuhl arrives with a crew of climate researchers in Shanghai, China, in September 2022, children in Shanghai and Bergen will have explored the ocean in multiple ways.

This arts-based, practice-development research project gives attention to sensory experiences and expressions and grounds emergent literacies in environmental sustainability.

You may ask how a tall ship travelling the world’s oceans with climate researchers on board is connected to children, teachers, artists and researchers, navigating a local landscape with a sea view and pencils in their hands.

Our answer is that the ‘Ocean Portraits’ project, children and adults involved will explore what weather landscapes mean and how to develop early childhood’s hope and joy at a time of a global environmental emergency. In the project, we activate and perform for children’s aesthetic experiences, explorations and sense making, imagination and expression, as well as scientific and geographical conceptualisation and philosophical forms of knowledge. The participants meet in a joint poetic and conceptual work that entwines the ocean and the biotope, the ecological community.

Together, across China and Norway, we explore the ocean that keeps us apart and binds us together. Living and growing up in Norway and China is often understood as different, but as humans, we share more than we think. Zooming in on both similar, and contradictory practices, with a collaborative project, allows us to study common global goals in local settings. The activities are designed with the goal of providing experiences and expanding children’s aesthetic exploration, sensory experiences, vocabulary, scientific knowledge and cultural ‘glocal’ understandings − all knowledge built at the KINDknow Research Centre with our partners (e.g. Birkeland & Li, 2019; Ødegaard & Marandon, 2019).

Furthermore, the arts-based design in ‘Ocean Portraits’ gives attention to what differs, but still binds us: the environment and the weather landscapes that children live in and by (Grindheim et al., 2019; Myrstad, Hackett & Bartnæs, 2020). This is a neglected area of early years educational research. While climate researchers monitor the long-term effects of global warming and the status of the ocean as an organism crucial for planetary survival, ‘Ocean Portraits’ touches base by giving attention to the immediate weather landscape and the local sensible and aesthetic world.

Our common aim is to share knowledge about the crucial role of the ocean for a global sustainability perspective. We relate to the UN’s Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021–2030) and the sustainability goals in Agenda 2030. The approach is meant to give hope for the future, knowledge about ecological relationships and an understanding of and experience with the visual and sensory worlds and artefacts.

Through the project, we move across − we see, hear, and feel the weather landscape. We make our own paper, where we eventually paint our version of the ocean − the ocean portrait. Before we draw a portrait of the ocean, we explore various artistic and philosophical dialogues through stories about the sea. Can we hear the sea inside us? Why are our tears salty? Do they come from the sea?

We give attention to small plant parts, found at the shore. We bring sea maps and maps of the world with us. We give attention to directions, shapes, surfaces, weather elements, like the sun, the rain, the wind, to temperature, to the taste of seawater, to fragments of stories from participants.


Real-life and fantasy stories are welcome, as well as stories told by teachers, from global history, journeys, immigration and expeditions.

Climate change is affecting daily life in ways previously unimagined, and indifference is difficult. For the adult generation, the climate can trigger emotions, anxiety for the future, activism, as well as efforts on ignorance. Our mentalities and beliefs impact the way we meet children and how we shape education for sustainability. For children, the weather landscapes they meet will ground their understandings, knowledge and bodily senses.

Across the world, extreme weather events such as floods, droughts, heat waves, storms, fires and landslides and snowslides are getting more severe and frequent. As this is having a devastating impact on living conditions in many parts of the world, it is important that education for sustainability create hope and joy for children’s education and life mastery. Meanwhile, educators must be prepared for education in crisis situations and will need resilience and courage to live and to transform for the benefit of themselves and diverse families.

Research has called for transformation for sustainability for several decades. Thus far, environmental education is foremost about teaching about the environment and less about experiencing and transforming mentalities towards the education of hope.

Therefore, this project is at the forefront of giving new ideas and examples of early-years’ education, bringing knowledge about the child to one of weather landscapes. Taking the arts and sensory approach brings all-round development up front. Here, play and imagination are elements as important as conceptualisations of natural elements, ecology and geography, all intertwined to stimulate and encourage emergent nature and ecological literacy and the expression of ideas through arts and dialogue.

Transforming our lifestyles to those of an ecological citizen requires perseverance and engagement for common goals (Ødegaard, 2021) for the blue ocean, the green vegetation, the living species and for how we relate to each other and to the ocean’s life and biotopes. Early-years’ education creates pathways to environmental attitudes and behaviours; therefore, we should encourage collaborative research that could transform lifestyles and the desire for living.



  • Birkeland, Å., & Li, Minyi (2019). Building a sustainable future through international ECE partnership programmes. ECNU Review of Education (2096–5311), 2(4), 458–474.
  • Grindheim, L. T., Bakken, Y., Hauge, K. H., & Heggen, M. P. (2019). Early childhood education for sustainability through contradicting and overlapping dimensions. ECNU Review of Education
  • (2096–5311), 2(4), 374–395.
  • Myrstad, A., Hackett, A., & Bartnæs, P. (2020). Lines in the snow; minor paths in the search for early childhood education for
  • planetary wellbeing, Global Studies of Childhood, 9, 1–13.
  • Ødegaard, E. E., & Marandon, A. (2019). Local weather events:
  • Stories of pedagogical practice as possible cultures of exploration. ECNU Review of Education (2096–5311), 2(4), 421–440.
  • Ødegaard, E. E. (2021). Reimagining “collaborative exploration”–
  • A signature pedagogy for sustainability in early childhood education and care. Sustainability, 13(9).


Research team and collaborators


KINDERGARTEN KNOWLEDGE – Centre for Systemic Research on Diversity and Sustainable Futures (KINDknow), is supported by Research Council Norway (RCN). Grant number: 275575.


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© 2019. This work is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND.

Contributor Profile

Director and Professor in Early Childhood Pedagogy
Western Norway University of Applied Sciences 
Phone: +47 5558 5932


  1. Thanks for this post, I really found this very helpful. And blog about Sustainability education starts in early years: Grounding ecological lifestyles and ‘glocal’ mentalities is very useful.


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