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Earth-Friendly Early Learning

Now more than ever, we are becoming aware of how our choices affect the environment, our health, and the health of our communities. As early childhood professionals, we are leaders who can make a difference in the health of our environment. Through earth-friendly actions, we can improve health, teach respect for nature, and save money, too.


  Earth-Friendly Discovery  |  Earth-Friendly Ways of Being Earth-Friendly Enivronments

Earth-friendly Discovery

Incorporate nature and science learning with infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

  • Add plants or animals to give kids a chance to experience nature firsthand.
    • Infants learn by watching as you model care for plants and animals. Introduce new vocabulary as you narrate your actions.
    • Toddlers gain independence by helping care for plants and animals. Encourage toddlers to help water the garden or feed the class pet.
    • Preschoolers become more involved through experience. For example, with a class garden they may help plant and care for the garden, observe plant growth, plant health, and the impact of weather. This supports an understanding of the interconnectedness in nature, and fosters systems thinking.
      Safety Tip- Check out Caring for our Children’s resources on plants and animals when considering which ones to add.
  • Practice the three R’s. Talk with children about the choices you’re making to reduce, reuse and recycle in your program. Encourage involvement, for example, by setting up a “re-use” bin in the art center, so children can use the back sides of papers and paper scraps for future projects. Talk with children about how their choices benefit the earth.
  • Focus on weather, temperature, and light. In our day-to-day lives, how often do we take the time to notice changes in light, humidity, and temperature? Lead children in noticing these changes, and discuss their impact. For example, you might point out the clouds, talk about the feeling of moisture in the air, and the benefit of rain to the plants in the garden. This supports children’s understanding of their connectedness to nature.
  • Observe children’s interests. Are your children curious about the ladybugs on the sidewalk? The birds in the windowsill? Are they noticing the changes in the weather? Follow children’s lead by adding books, pictures, stories and songs on these topics. Invite experts and elders to share their knowledge on these topics.
  • Use natural objects as learning tools. Sticks, leaves, pinecones, bark, flowers, and seed pods make excellent additions to a learning environment. Encourage children to compare and contrast, sort and classify, or chart items based on size, shape, quantity, and other attributes. Invite children to bring in natural items from outdoors. These objects enrich the sensory appeal of your environment, sparking curiosity and discovery. They’re also a sustainable choice for the environment and your budget. Safety Tip-Keep in mind the age and development of the children in your group when adding objects. Children who explore by mouthing objects should not have access to small items that could cause choking.


Earth-friendly ways of Being

Children learn by watching what you say and do. How you talk about and engage with nature has a profound impact.

  • Model interest and concern for nature. When you’re interacting with nature, model care for plants, animals, and the environment. This can be shown through words, for example; by explaining that you’re throwing away a piece of trash you found on the playground so the birds don’t eat it and get sick. This can be shown through actions by demonstrating how to handle the class pet very gently and explaining that animals can be frightened by rough motions.
  • Show wonder and reverence for nature. Model feelings of anticipation, joy, and respect for the natural world. You might say, “I can’t wait to get outside and feel the breeze,” while getting ready to go outside. You could lead children in yoga or sitting still while outdoors, encouraging children to tune into how they feel in nature. Or lay out a blanket and invite children to gaze at the clouds with you. It’s an old-fashioned activity that never gets old. It’s also a great opportunity for language and connection.
  • Build a community of nature guardians. Help children learn the value of collective impact by fostering an earth-friendly community. Include children and families in generating ideas like gathering rainwater to use for the garden, leading a community recycling drive, starting a buy-nothing group, cleaning up trash from a local park or wilderness area, and more.

Earth-friendly Environments

Consider the products and activities you use, their impact on children’s health and the environment.

Air Quality

  • Fresh air is invigorating for active kids. But unhealthy air can have negative effects on developing lungs, especially for children with asthma or seasonal allergies. Become familiar with the air quality in your community, and schedule outdoor play with air quality in mind. Visit gov to see the air quality in your community. Receive daily updates by signing up at enviroflash.info/.
  • Allow time for new items to air out when adding them to your environment. When you re-paint a room, do it when children are on a school break to allow the fumes to air out.
  • Do vehicles idle outside your program during pick-up or drop-off times? Work with drivers to reduce vehicle idling which introduces pollutants into the air.

Cleaning Products

  • Consider the methods and products you use. Caring for our Children has information on when and how to clean, sanitize, and disinfect. They also have a resource to help you choose a sanitizer or disinfectant, including what to look for when considering earth-friendly options.
  • How you use products is just as important as what you use. When cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing, avoid aerosols. Aerosols spray into the air, increasing the chance of children inhaling the product. Adjust the spray bottle nozzle to a heavy spray instead of a fine mist. This directs the spray onto the surface instead of into the air.


  • Take notice of what you are throwing in the trash. Can you replace single-use plates or serveware with more cost-effective, reusable options? Choose items with less packaging, such as a beverage that comes in a large recyclable jug instead of individually packaged servings that end up in a landfill.
  • Get creative about reusing items. Once they have been cleaned, plastic food containers make great dramatic play props, molds for sand play, and art materials. Cardboard boxes make wonderful blocks, can be made into play houses for small dolls, used for collecting natural objects, and more. Encourage children to brainstorm ways to reuse items instead of tossing them.
  • Consider sustainability before purchasing. (Sustainable products and practices can be continued or maintained without harming the environment.) Is the item made of durable materials that will stand the test of time? If damaged, can it be repaired? Be intentional about what you bring into your learning environment to limit the amount of broken items that will go to a landfill. This saves money in the long run.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that small steps add up to make a big impact. Every action you take today affects your children and the environment they will grow up with.

More resources from around the web:

  • Child Care Education Institute (CCEI) offers a variety of virtual professional development modules, including Creating an Eco-Friendly Child Care Environment. Earn 2 clock hours while developing a sustainability plan for your center, including activities for promoting environmental awareness in young children and increasing family involvement. To register for this free course, access the CCEI link from your account in the Arizona Early Childhood Workforce Registry. Not a member? Learn how to sign up here.
  • Eco-Healthy Child Care® is an award-winning and science-based program of the Children’s Environmental Health Network. They partner with child care professionals to reduce environmental hazards such as pesticides, lead and unsafe plastics found in and around child care facilities.
  • Environmental Kinship International offers a free download of their Environmental Kinship Guide. This beautiful and inspiring guide provides a framework for supporting children’s learning with practical tips you can use today.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency offers a guide for green cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting in the early childhood setting.
  • The Natural Learning Initiative promotes the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children. They offer a variety of resources, including recommendations for nature-based learning activities, enhancements to the learning environment, gardening and more.

At Quality First, we love to hear from you! How are you fostering earth-friendly early learning? Send an email to qualityfirst@firstthingsfirst.org.