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Narratives on sustainability and sloyd in Finnish ECEC

This article explores how sustainability and sloyd (crafting in soft and hard materials) are expressed in contemporary Finnish early childhood education and care (ECEC). It critically examines national policy documents and core curriculum in the light of contemporary research on sustainability and sloyd education in the early years. Methodologically, the study builds on a bricolage from which policy and curriculum are contrasted against empirical research materials consisting of visual narratives from sloyd practices in a day-care setting. The article makes visible how the narratives of sustainability and sloyd in Finnish ECEC challenge teachers to provide children with rich learning opportunities within a relational ontology that has the potential to promote sustainability in times of planetary emergency.

Keywords: Sustainability, sloyd, early childhood education, narrative approach, bricolage


We are now said to live in the Anthropocene, the first geological era in which the Earth’s systems and climate are substantially defined by humans (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). Unprecedented changes are taking place and we are facing challenges in terms of global warming, loss of biodiversity, pollution of air and water, population growth, and overuse of non-renewable sources such as phosphorus and nitrogen, just to mention a few. Currently, four of the nine planetary boundaries are transcended (Steffen et al, 2015) with unpredictable consequences for contemporary as well as future communities. In short, we are in a state of “planetary emergency” (Alden Meyer, December 20181). For the first time in history, humanity has created a situation through which our ways of life are threatening our very existence on a global scale. Our current civilization relies on an Anthropocentric worldview that considers humans to be separate from the non-human world (Taylor, 2017). This worldview is tightly associated with behaviour that generates personal and societal wealth at the cost of both human and non-human well-being.

The opportunities provided by education as a path to sustainability has been underlined by several international and Nordic institutions, including the Nordic Council of Ministers (2009; 2013). During the past few decades, the importance of early childhood education and care has come to the fore in many international statements since the UN Rio Conference in 1992 (UNESCO, 2012; United Nations 2014a; United Nations, 2014b). The Gothenburg Recommendations on Education for Sustainable Development (SWEDESD, 2008) explicitly state that early childhood education and care (ECEC) is a natural starting point for sustainability education. Early childhood is a valuable time for the formation of basic values as well as everyday habits. ECEC also provides an innovative, transformational learning space as young children are allowed to learn through play and creativity. Young children are encouraged to engage in holistic learning which integrates cognitive, emotional, and bodily processes. In the Finnish context, sloyd has a long tradition as a vital part of the daily practices in ECEC and it is currently made visible in national curriculum as an arena with great potential for learning.

Against this background, the aim of this article is to explore how sustainability and sloyd are expressed in contemporary Finnish ECEC. What affordances are made possible in the nexus of early childhood education, sustainability, and sloyd? How can the intentions of national core curriculum be understood in relation to daily practices in ECEC settings? Thus, the article is also a contribution to the current understanding of sloyd as an arena for sustainability education in ECEC.

Finnish ECEC at glance

Finnish ECEC can generally be described as a humanistic project and ECEC is intended for all children regardless of family background in terms of social class, ethnicity, or language (Finnish National Agency for Education, 2018). It does not imply standardised testing or evaluation of learning outcomes. As such, it inherently contributes to sustainability in terms of educational equality, democracy, and long-term societal stability. Further, Finnish ECEC explicitly aims to support each child’s physical, emotional, and social well-being. It is also a group activity which emphasizes the development of empathy, relational and social skills, as well as the participation in democratic decision-making processes. Hence, the provision of ECEC in Finland can generally be understood as being a matter of sustainability with respect to several of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2015).

Finnish ECEC follows the Nordic tradition in which education is intertwined with care and play (Broström, 2017; Karila, 2012). The Nordic “educare” tradition of ECEC can generally be described as child-centered, focusing on the holistic well-being of the child as well as on the child’s right to participate in decision-making. Relationships, play, and creativity have a strong position in the pedagogy. Hence, education and care are not to be understood as a dichotomy – learning takes place in everyday situations in which children engage in playful and meaning-making activities in a process of cultivation. This is underlined by the fact that the role of Finnish ECEC is expressed as a way to support a good life for every child at the same time as supporting the child’s development and learning (Karila, 2016). Further, quality is understood in terms of both structural and process factors (Vlasov et al, 2019). The pedagogical atmosphere and more specifically, safe and positive relationships between children and adults, are in the foreground. Arts-based pedagogies and aesthetic learning processes are explicitly identified as desirable elements in high-quality ECEC. These basic values form a strong motive for working with sustainability issues through sloyd in ECEC.

Theoretical framework

In this section, I provide a theoretical framework for the study. First, I discuss some of the core concepts of sustainability education and present relational ontology as a basis for sustainability education in ECEC. Thereafter, I describe how sustainability education in the early years can be understood in relation to the Finnish ECEC tradition. Finally, I present some perspectives on sloyd education and the opportunity it provides as an arena for sustainability education in the early years. This section provides a frame of interpretation for the study.

Some core concepts of sustainability education

In recent decades, the concepts sustainable development and sustainability have gained increasing attention in the ECEC context. The two concepts have somewhat different connotations and I will briefly comment on them here. Sustainable development as a concept stems from the so called Bruntland Report Our Common Future (WCED, 1987). It declares that for development to be sustainable, it must imply that future generations will be guaranteed a good life. The concept outlines three interrelated dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, the social/cultural, and the ecological. These dimensions each include various aspects of the political, cultural, and societal systems on the national as well as the international level. These underlying ideas of sustainable development are visible in the The Agenda 2030 (United Nations, 2015), which is a continuation of the Millenium Development Goals (United Nations, 2000) and earlier international agreements striving for global sustainable development. The Agenda 2030 can be described as a charter for the future and it underlines the importance of children and young people as critical agents of change. It also translates the three dimensions of sustainable development into tangible goals and measurable targets. It has gained attention among researchers in sustainability education during the past few years (e.g. Corcoran, Weakland & Wals, 2017; Siraj-Blatchford, Mogharreban & Park, 2016) and serves as a point of reference for educational policy and research in ECEC. Although widespread, the concept sustainable development has been associated with a neoliberalist paradigm based on economic growth (cf. Wolff, Sjöblom, Hofman-Bergholm & Palmberg, 2017; Wolff & Furu, 2018; Ideland, 2019). Recently, the sustainability concept has become used more frequently in both science and policy. In this article, I use sustainability to refer to a condition in which human life will not hurt any life (human or non-human) on Earth today or in the future (cf. Wolff & Furu, 2018). Hence, sustainability implies the protection of ecological diversity as well as a social/cultural justice including a fair distribution of resources among people.

In this article, I have used the concept sustainability education in line with the above argumentation and criticism against the development paradigm (see also Jickling & Wals, 2008; Ideland, 2019). Sustainability education has its roots in the rise of environmental education in the 1970s and the education for sustainable development in the 1990s. However, sustainability education as a concept provides a space for holistic learning processes, where focus generally lies on what to achieve (i.e. sustainability) rather than specific contents or methods (cf. Wolff, Sjöblom, Hofman-Bergholm & Palmberg, 2017; Wolff & Furu, 2018). Sustainability education needs to be both transactional (i.e. built on interaction and participation) and transformative (i.e. resulting in personal and societal change), to generate a necessary long-term shift in both attitudes and habits. Thus, it should provide students with opportunities to engage actively in critical ethical reflection and discussion, as well as in creative processes which support their cognitive and practical abilities to choose and form their own future (Wolff & Furu, 2018).

Relational ontology as a point of departure

In this article, I have taken relational ontology (Buber, 1958; Noddings, 2013; Papatheorou & Moyles, 2009; Wals, 2017) as a point of departure for both sustainability and sloyd education in ECEC. Relational ontology is a worldview through which relations are seen as a priori. Humans are relational beings and the relations we have to ourselves, to other humans, but also to the non-human world, are of importance in how we learn to live sustainable lives.

Wals (2017) argues that children have an innate capacity for caring and showing empathy, as well as for exploring, sensing, and creating, which the educational system sometimes fails to confirm and support. Bridging the nature-culture divide and understanding humans as part of the web of life could be at the centre of sustainability education in ECEC (Taylor, 2017). Simply put, the opportunity to form and maintain respectful, caring relationships is seen as the foundation for sustainability education. These relationships are important in terms of self, others, nature, and culture. Therefore, a foundation for sustainability education in ECEC is to foster children in an atmosphere of mutual respect, caring, and warm interest in sharing their thoughts and emotions. This atmosphere can be extended from the human to the non-human world, providing them with opportunities to build sensitive and conscious relationships with resources and materials. Moreover, relational consciousness is a quality indicator that supports a learning culture of positive attitudes and relationships. This implies a view of the child as robust and able to learn, to collaborate, and to meet challenges (cf. Duhn, 2012). At the same time, Ideland (2019), argues that sustainability education risks to unintentionally marginalise some children who are not robust, self-confident, and participating in shaping their future, i.e. children who are not living up to the idea of desirable child.

When it comes to sloyd education, relational ontology can be understood as recognizing how children explore and relate to the learning environment, materials, as well as tools. As such, it partially embraces a post-human perspective (Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Karlsson Häikiö, 2017a) through which discourse and materiality are understood as vital parts of education. In this perspective, a connection between child and material is seen as an intra-active relationship through which mutual influence occurs. Meaning-making is understood as being a process that takes place in the space between the child and the material. This is linked to the idea of physical, social, and emotional affordances in terms of opportunities to perceive, explore and understand, which is a crucial part of education. These aspects of context have their options and limits in terms of inviting children to be involved in meaning-making or not. Every artefact, material and tool carries with it opportunities for engaging in understanding the web of relations that we all have to nature/culture, both locally and globally. These relations in themselves can serve as resources in the transformative learning processes that are the aim of sustainability education.

Sustainability education in ECEC

What then does sustainability education mean within the ECEC context and how can it be understood in relation to ECEC visions and practices? Research into sustainability education in ECEC has increased rapidly during the past decade but is still considered to be underdeveloped (Ferreira & Davis, 2014; Somerville & Williams, 2015; Hedefalk, Almqvist & Östman, 2015). In this section I provide a glimpse into some current strands of sustainability education in ECEC. I will begin with a reflection on the objectives, and then turn to the issues of possible contents and approaches.

Wals (2017, p. 157) states that the key question of our time – and thus the main focus of sustainability education in ECEC – is “how to live lightly, equitably, meaningfully and empathically (i.e. towards the past and the future, towards different cultures, the non-human and more-than-human world) on the Earth”. Hence, one of the goals would be to support children in finding fruitful ways to respond to sustainability challenges, which are inherently “wicked problems” i.e. multiple, intertwined, and ever-changing in character (cf. Brown, Harris & Russell, 2010).

There is common agreement on the importance of giving all children a fair chance to learn how to think and act sustainably – to live a good life (cf. Siraj-Blatchford, 2018). The early years have been described as being crucial in the formation of attitudes and understanding oneself in relation to others and the environment. ECEC can foster attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary for living in a rapidly changing world where major cultural transformations are required to protect both life supporting ecosystems and to guarantee that every human has his or her basic needs met to live a good life. However, the objectives of sustainability education must be culturally sensitive and adapted to the various strengths and challenges of local contexts across the globe. Children should be supported in their capacity to make informed responses to a future we cannot predict with any certainty (Davis & Elliott, 2014). Furu, Wolff & Suomela (2018) argue that ecological literacy is one of the goals of sustainability eductaion. This means that children need to get the chance to develop an in-depth understanding of the ecological system, its vulnerability and its protection, both in terms of knowledge and values.

Against the background of the planetary emergency we are facing, I argue that sustainability education should also prepare children for life in a post-fossil fuel world where the necessary energy resources for global transportation, food production, or daily necessities cannot be taken for granted (Salminen & Vadén, 2017). The mounting crises will demand entirely new ways of providing for oneself and others and creativity as well as crafting might be two valuable aspects of this response. Although sustainability education is driven by recognising serious problems, threats, and challenges, it is crucial that a pedagogy of hope (Warwick, Warwick & Nash, 2018) is at the very heart of it in the ECEC context. Sense of wonder, appreciation, as well as a sense of belonging are vital aspects of this pedagogy. Nurturing children’s positive attitudes, and capacity for caring and compassion are examples of approaches that could be adopted. Ojala (2017) argues that hope arises from actions and that children should have the chance to explore how they, with their parents and teachers, can be change makers. However, it is important that children are not made responsible for a situation that earlier generations have created.

Although there is no general agreement on what the content of sustainability education in ECEC should be, there are some topics and themes that are recurrently made visible in policy, research, and practice. A meta study by Somerville & Williams (2015) state that current research on sustainability education in ECEC reflects three main orientations: 1) one environmentally oriented with focus on children’s connection to nature; 2) one focused on children’s rights; and 3) one based on post-human frameworks. These orientations can both reflect, reproduce and re-create the narratives of sustainability education in ECEC and thus affect what affordances future sustainability education can possibly be created by teachers and children.

Environmental questions are still central to sustainability education and one guiding framework is education about nature, in nature, and for nature. Nature contact, outdoor education, gardening, and Green Flag certification are all examples of this tradition. Another guiding framework is the 7REs of sustainability (Engdahl, 2015) as an example of organizing the main topics of sustainability education in ECEC. The 7REs (Respect, Reflect, Rethink, Reuse, Reduce, Recycle, and Redistribute) have guided one of the OMEP2 world projects implemented since 2009. This framework integrates an ecological/environmental dimension with the social/cultural dimension. As such, the framework makes visible both children’s rights to participate and understand social and cultural aspects of their life, and to link these aspects to the management of natural resources e.g. through consumption and circulation of materials.

When it comes to how sustainability education can be carried out in ECEC, there seems to be general agreement on some general principles. Play is at the core of ECEC and must thus not be overlooked in sustainability education for young children. Hence, playful learning based on exploration, collaboration, problem-solving, and shared meaning-making, and is often stated as being at the centre of sustainability education in ECEC (cf. Huggins & Evans, 2018; Davis, 2015; Pramling Samuelsson & Park, 2017). Academic skills such as literacy and numeracy are also crucial in sustainability education for young children (Siraj-Blatchford, 2018). Engdahl (2015) mentions the holistic perspective, interdisciplinarity, multi method, as well as creative approaches. The potential of multimodal storytelling (stories, drama, art, craft, music, dance, and other aesthetic expressions) in relation to sustainability education in ECEC is currently being explored by Furu, Kaihovirta & Wolff (in progress). Ärlemalm-Hagsér (2013) and Borg (2017) emphasize the relationship with nature as a vital part of sustainability education in ECEC. Huggins and Evans (2018) advocate a perspective in which “emergent” is a crucial part of the concept. In analogy with emergent literacy or emergent numeracy, we could perhaps focus on children’s emergent sustainability? Davis (2015) argues that a key issue is to develop cultures of sustainability in ECEC practices that generate transformative thinking, practices and relationships. Rather than introducing specific topics or activities, educators should strive for a holistic approach in which they critically scrutinize and develop the affordances that children are provided in the physical, social, and emotional learning environment. In the following text, I will turn to one arena which is apt for putting these principles into action, i.e. sloyd education in ECEC.

Sloyd education in ECEC

Creative processes like arts and crafts have a long tradition both in Finnish and Nordic ECEC (Aerila & Rönkkö, 2015; Carlsen, 2015). Since its very beginning, Finnish day-care and education for young children have integrated crafts into the daily practices.

On the one hand, in the early asylum tradition within Nordic ECEC, children were brought up with crafts as a step on a way to an occupation. Sewing, knitting, spinning and other forms of handicraft were seen as useful skills to acquire with respect to self-preservation and as a basis for production of goods in the home. This can be linked to the contemporary DIY (Do It Yourself) movement, which puts emphasis on being self-sufficient and stepping away from the mainstream consumer culture. On the other hand, starting from Fröbel play gifts, the importance of children’s exploration of materials, their shapes, their properties, and their beauty, has long been recognized within the field. In this tradition, focus has been more on play and free expression and “shaping of the human” (Carlsen, 2015, p. 368). Learning to understand the opportunities provided by different materials in terms of symbolic play or tangible construction has been a common focus and part of the interaction between children and adults in ECEC for centuries. Carlsen (2015) states that the history of arts and crafts contains an element of reform pedagogy with opportunities for societal change. This inherent aspect of creative processes (individual expression, exploration of materials, and developing new techniques and ways of seeing) carries the potential for transformation in terms of the sustainability challenges.

Sloyd (crafting in soft or hard materials) has since long been part of the curriculum in ECEC. The importance of aesthetic learning processes is highlighted by contemporary researchers in ECEC (Karlsson Häikiö, 2017a; Klerfelt & Qvarsell, 2012; Riddersporre & Persson, 2010; Änggård, 2006). These learning processes offer an arena for children to understand themselves in relation to their cultural context, and as such, they are spaces for exploring issues of identity and community. As with any aesthetic learning process, crafting is an open space for meaning-making, where children can communicate their understandings of the world and themselves in this world. With respect to meaning-making, reflective dialogues between children and adults are key (Ahlskog-Björkman & Furu, 2018).

Sloyd can also contribute to reflection and discussion about values such as what “a good life” can be, to develop the understandings of the relations of the human and non-human world, or of humans as part of the web of life. Sloyd can provide an arena for pondering the ethical matters linked to the consumption of everyday objects, and for establishing a caring and respectful relationship to materials and resources. In addition, sloyd can be a space for developing DIY knowledge and skills, which can contribute to a critical perspective on mainstream consumer culture. In this respect, sloyd can contribute to building capacities in terms of attitudes, but also competencies, well needed in a rapidly changing world where a fossil fuel based, energy-intense life style is inevitably being transformed.

In recent years, discourse and materiality have increasingly been of interest to researchers in the field of aesthetics within ECEC (Karlsson Häikiö; 2017b; Lenz Taguchi, 2010; Rautio & Winston, 2015). These post-humanistic perspectives have shed light on the cultural and material prerequisites for learning. They have brought a theory to some silent knowledge within the field, e.g. that the materials influence the paths of creative processes and that the physical properties of materials and tools are therefore to be chosen with care.

In their research, Rautio & Winston (2015) state that the relationship between children and things is a mutual one. As children encounter a learning space, they engage in a form of play with the things (objects, materials, tools etc.) that are available. In this respect, the framing of an educational event is of great importance. Different things have different histories and implications for children. They offer a range of options in terms of meaning-making. This raises several questions: How can teachers in ECEC balance the potential contradictions and conflicts between their educational objectives and the interests of the children? How can learning events be designed to invite children to processes of individual and/or shared meaning-making, yet afford enough structure or scaffolding in the direction of promoting sustainability or developing certain attitudes, skills or understandings related to sloyd?

Hofverberg (2019) is one of the researchers who have explicitly connected craft to sustainability, however not in the ECEC context. She has explored the relationships between the content, the learning processes, and the contribution of the material in processes that are defined as environmental and sustainability education. In her research, she found that the learning experiences and sustainability outcomes depend on the purpose and the pedagogies of the projects. Further, she stated that the crafting materials not only contribute to this by their materiality, but also by the embodied stories that emerge when students engage with them. These findings have implications for understanding how sloyd can be an arena for sustainability in ECEC in terms of materiality issues.

Hofverberg, Kronlid & Östman (2017) explored crafting in relation to sustainability. They analysed the various purposes, skills, and approaches to learning in three waves of crafting (the early 1900s, the hippie movement in the 1960s-1970s, and contemporary craftivism) and identified tensions and challenges that need to be taken into account when discussing crafting and pedagogy in relation to sustainability. They also highlighted the risk of counter-productive outcomes when connecting craft to sustainability:

“When talking about an ESD craft pedagogy, it thus becomes crucial to ask what is included and excluded in an educative craft practice in terms of gender, class, race, environment and more-than-humans?” (p. 19)

However, an implication of their analysis of craft in connection with sustainability issues is that craft is an empowering force which increases agency among its practitioners. As such, it strengthens the practitioners’ capacity to take action in environmental sustainability issues. It is also stated that crafting increases sustainability through the practitioners’ knowledge about the whole process, about long-lasting products, as well as about mending and repairing. These aspects can be seen as being compatible with several of the objectives of sustainability education in ECEC.

In conclusion, both sustainability and sloyd education are transformative in character and could preferably be understood and conducted with focus on process rather than on product. They converge at several points from philosophical reflection to practical activities. Furthermore, the learning processes involved are sometimes unexpected and unpredictable, i.e. the nature of learning is rhizomatic (cf. Karlsson Häikiö, 2017a). It is of interest to explore issues of materiality further, more specifically the intra-action of children and sloyd materials, as well as discursive practices related to sloyd in ECEC, in order to understand better what the dynamics of sloyd and sustainability are in the early years.

Methodological framework

The article is written within a qualitative interpretivist framework. The first part of the study is a based on a critical discourse analysis in which policy and curriculum are examined with respect to contemporary research in ECEC. The aim of the analysis and interpretation is in-depth understanding of the core elements in Finnish ECEC policy and curriculum and an identification of the underlying values, driving forces, and possible implications for teachers in ECEC settings.

The second part of the study is based on analyses of visual narratives of sloyd activities in an ECEC setting in Western Finland. Informed consent to analyse the visual narratives was obtained by the staff in the group. The group consists of 14 children aged 3 to 5 and three adults (one teacher, one nurse, and one part-time assistant). The research material consists of nine postings (photos and videos and comments) on an open Instagram account from September 2018 to March 2019. As the setting has an outdoor education profile, all the visual narratives are from outdoors. The analysis was carried out with a perspective that focuses on what affordances the children are provided with in their ECEC daily life. The analysis has two dimensions. Firstly, focus was on the material affordances that surround the children in terms of environment, tools, and materials. Secondly, focus was on the discursive affordances i.e. the pedagogical attitudes reflected in the written comments attached to the images. The analysis identifies possible arenas of meaning-making where children can engage in experiences that support a relational understanding and that encourage their creativity, agency, and crafting skills.

A narrative approach (Clandinin, 2007) was used to guide the analysis and interpretation of the research materials. Finally, through a bricolage (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005), a meta narrative on sustainability and sloyd is created based upon the various narratives from the first and second parts of the study.

Results of the critical examination of Finnish policy and curriculum in ECEC

In the following text, I have critically examined Finnish policy and curriculum in ECEC and analysed the current narratives of sustainability and sloyd. Further, I analysed these documents in light of contemporary research on sustainability education and sloyd education with a focus on young children. Finally, I contrasted these narratives with visual narratives from an ECEC setting in order to explore the narrative of sustainability and sloyd in contemporary Finnish ECEC.

The Finnish Act on ECEC

In August 2015 Finland adopted a new Act on ECEC (updated in 20183). The Act states that all Finnish children aged from 0 to 6 years have the right to education that guides them towards ethical responsibility and sustainable actions. ECEC is to be understood as a unity of fostering, education and care, in which pedagogy is emphasized. It has to guarantee the child’s wellbeing and health (emotional, social as well as physical) and support the child holistically in its development. The Act explicitly states that ECEC must afford pedagogical activities of play, physical movement, arts, and cultural tradition and make positive learning opportunities possible for each child regardless of age or development.

The Act is firmly based on humanistic values. It reflects the past few decades of international and national work concerning human rights and, more specifically, children’s rights. Every child has the right to be treated equally regardless of cultural or religious background. Every child should be met with respect and dignity, be supported in terms of health and well-being, and have the opportunity to develop in line with his or her own potential. The Act relies on relational ontology in terms of the emphasis on mutual and warm relationships between children and adults in ECEC settings. Further, every child has the right to learn how to make ethical decisions and act sustainably and develop as a citizen. This can be understood as a reflection of international policy regarding sustainability in a global perspective.

However, the law makes visible a somewhat contradictory view in terms of sustainability. Lifelong learning is mentioned as a central issue in the Act. This can be considered part of a neo-liberalistic agenda in which the child is primarily viewed as a future grown-up, who should qualify as a flexible part of the global labour market. The Act also reflects an Anthropocentric view as humans are the focus and the non-human world is not even mentioned. With respect to the current urgent state of the world, this can be regarded as being somewhat problematic. The Sustainability Development Goals (United Nations, 2015) are partly visible in the Act. Goals 3 (good health and well-being), 4 (quality education) and 5 (gender equality) are made visible. Likewise, goal 10 (reduced inequalities) is explicitly mentioned. Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) can be implicitly found in the statement about citizenship. In conclusion, the Finnish Act on ECEC reflects an Anthropocentric view founded in humanistic values as it states that learning how to live responsibly and sustainably is the right of every child. As such, it does not provide a common ground for developing ECEC curriculum nor practices in a direction in which the prevailing worldview is either reflected on or problematized. It allows for the development of a relational ontology for ECEC, but does not explicitly promote it.

National core curriculum on sustainability

The national core curriculum for the early years explicitly describe sustainability as a basic value. ECEC should follow the principle of a sustainable life style and the three (or four) dimensions of sustainability; the ecological, the social/cultural, and the economic (Finnish National Agency for Education, 2018). All children should have the opportunity to develop a sustainable lifestyle, and to embrace an understanding of how the ecosystem is a prerequisite for social, cultural, and economic well-being.

Sustainability is described as part of the learning themes and competencies in ECEC. The environmental and social/cultural dimensions are clearly visible, whereas the economic dimension is less explicit. With respect to the ecological dimension, ECEC should afford opportunities to learn about and understand the ecosystem, the necessity for clean air and water, respect for nature (including other humans and the non-human). It is explicitly stated that children should learn to save resources, to reduce/reuse/recycle materials. The social/cultural dimension is explicitly addressed as both an important aspect of the learning culture and as a learning content in itself. Socio-emotional skills, collaborative learning etc. are at the fore, as well as learning to live in a world of diversity in terms of cultures, languages, religions etc. The economic dimension is mentioned only in brief and at a superficial level, e.g. as learning to save resources and to be “modest”. Consumption is not mentioned in the curriculum, nor the ethically-challenging issues related to it in terms of natural depletion and lack of socio-economical fairness. Clearly, the curriculum assumes that the economy (and economic growth) is a given entity that young children cannot or should not reflect on. With respect to the planetary emergency we are facing, the curriculum does not provide a foundation for transformative education with the potential to challenge the current worldviews underpinning the national and global systems which threaten life on Earth as we know it (cf. Värri, 2018).

However, Finnish education in the early years stresses that learning happens in communication, exploration, creativity, and play. It also relies on a view of the child as being capable, competent, and driven by curiosity and as having a will to explore and learn about the world. Further, it reflects trust in teachers as having the knowledge and skills to conduct sustainability education in participatory ways. The national curriculum state that the core of ECEC is a “learning community” where children and adults learn from each other and with one another. Therefore, sustainability education should be entangled into the various activities that take place in the everyday life of the children, in order to be a genuinely driving force in sustainability issues. It could integrate a multitude of activities in which children and adults together explore, reflect on, and discuss phenomena in the world from a range of perspectives. Interpreted in this sense, the core curriculum carries considerable potential for transformation and for developing a pedagogy of hope and resilience.

National core curriculum on sloyd

Sloyd is explicitly mentioned in the national core curriculum for ECEC (Finnish National Agency for Education, 2018) in connection with the learning domain that focuses on self-expression. Along with supporting the development of musical, visual, verbal, and bodily forms of expression, ECEC should let children get to know their cultural heritage and various artistic forms. These forms of expression enhance the ability to think and learn, as well as to make ethical decisions. Meaning-making, imagination, exploration, and interpretation are part of developing multiliteracy, but also a prerequisite for participation in a democratic society. These processes are viewed as valuable forms to make perceptions, thoughts, and feelings visible and thus make it possible to share and develop in the learning community. Thus, the curriculum strongly reflects a sociocultural perspective on learning.

The curriculum specifically declares that children should get the chance to develop their ability to plan, to solve problems in creative ways, and to deepen their knowledge about constructions, materials, and techniques of arts and crafts. This can happen through constructing, sewing, and doing wood work. An important aspect of sloyd is the opportunity to experience the joy of creating, experiencing, and exploring as well as the feeling of leaving a unique mark on their processes and products. All children are entitled to experiment and combine soft and hard materials, and to learn the techniques that the work requires. Sloyd should also involve exploring and taking care of traditions of crafting that relate both to the background of the child and to the local context. In these aspirations, the curriculum takes a clear children’s rights perspective and explicitly values the child as a human being in its own right. The curriculum concerning sloyd does not explicitly relate to sustainability issues or sustainability education, except for the cultural aspects of crafting traditions both in the local context and with respect to the cultural background of the child. However, sloyd provides an open space for connecting contemporary issues of identity and culture with sustainability. As such, it can contribute to alternative and multi-modal narratives about what it means to be a child in times of planetary emergency. It can also be a crucial part of the transformation to a post-fossil fuel civilization as it offers a space for problem-solving, creative exploring of ideas, and doing various forms of handicraft.

Wood, saw, knife, hammer, and nails – the everyday affordances for sloyd and sustainability

The narratives of policy and curriculum are contrasted with experiences directly from the ECEC daily practice. The analysis in this part is based on a sample of visual narratives on Instagram from daily practices in one day-care setting. Although limited, and as a single case, it is not possible to generalise from it, it serves as the basis for reflection on the opportunities provided by sloyd as an arena for sustainability education. It provides a rich entry to the lived curriculum a Finnish child might encounter in contemporary ECEC.

As the case was an outdoor setting, the framing of the experiences was slightly unusual. It can be argued that the outdoor setting affords other types of experiences in terms of materials from nature, and that the pedagogical attitude among the teachers is coloured by the idea of the robust child. There might also be a stronger focus on bodily experiences, as well as on challenging the children to be active and independent in everything from clothing to taking on explorations of all kinds.

The postings on Instagram were analysed with respect to what affordances they provide the children with. The narrative that emerges is one in which nature and/or the yard itself provide a pedagogical frame of reference. The outdoor environment is not “tidy” in the way an indoor environment is. Thus, the children do not have to be careful not to drop materials or tools on a table or floor that must be protected from marks and scratches. The children are used to a milieu that affords residual wooden pieces and sticks brought to the ECEC setting by parents and staff. Furthermore, they are used to carrying around both fire wood and to constructing huts from tree branches during their time in the nearby forest. They also have a multitude of experiences from a natural environment that stimulates gross and fine motor skills in multiple ways.

Of the nine postings, seven show activities with hard materials and two show activities that involve soft materials. In terms of physical affordances, all activities are conducted outdoors. The children have free access to wood of different kinds, as well as to authentic tools like saws, hammers, and knives, and nails. With these they conduct various activities such as carving sticks with a proper carving knife, cutting wooden boards and sticks with a saw, constructing robots with pieces of wood, nails, and a hammer. One of the postings was commented on in a way that lets us understand that the children use materials left over from last year: yarn and rope to make a giant spider net. The children have access to yarn and pipe cleaners and plastic eyes to make their own spiders and insects to inhabit the net.

In the setting, sloyd is predominantly interpreted to be part of everyday life. It happens because of the children’s interests and curiosity. The children can initiate sloyd activities and they have free access to materials and tools, but the activities are supported and supervised by the grown-ups. The pictures and videos show that the children use the tools independently. Obviously, they have already developed some basic skills, but they are provided with opportunities to continue to explore techniques and materials at their own pace. The social affordances are visible as a learning culture in which children are allowed to initiate, plan, and conduct sloyd processes both independently and with peers and adults. The photos and videos show children doing sloyd activities both at their own and in smaller groups. Some postings are commented in ways that underline that the activity was initiated by the child. Some activities are conducted in group and structured by adults.

The images reflect some of the material affordances that make sloyd possible in an ECEC setting. Wood in various forms is included in the images posted on Instagram. The images contain both larger pieces of wood and sticks from the forest and smaller pieces such as boards and sticks that can be bought from a shop. The ECEC setting also has a corner outside their shed where parents can bring recycled materials for construction. The children have access to common tools such as saws, knives, and hammers. All these are proper tools (not toys) but of a size that suits the children’s age. The emotional and social affordances are implicit but visible in the engagement and focus that the children show in their activity. The comments made by the adults also let us understand that these activities are considered to be positive and part of a learning culture based on the basic values of the child as competent and capable.


The narratives of sustainability and sloyd in contemporary Finnish ECEC show that policy and curriculum afford an open space for addressing sustainability issues in multiple ways. The Act on ECEC states clearly that children are entitled to education that develops their ethical awareness and ability to act sustainably. In addition, several aspects of social and cultural sustainability are made visible, although in a more implicit way. The Finnish National Core Curriculum explicitly mentions sustainability as both a basic value and as part of several of the learning domains that should be integrated in ECEC. However, various aspects of sustainability education are mentioned in connection with different competencies and as such might be understood as being separate entities. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are only partly visible, although it has been stated that they provide an underpinning for the curriculum.

However, the Finnish National Core Curriculum does not provide strict guidance concerning contents or methods. Rather, it is open for individual and contextual interpretations and its implementation relies on the individual teacher as well as on the working culture in the specific ECEC settings. Well-educated teachers, who have a solid knowledge of sustainability issues are therefore a prerequisite for the implementation of the visions in policy and curriculum. Sustainability should hence have a strong position in the education of ECEC teachers (cf. Furu, Wolff & Suomela, 2018). The curriculum describes sloyd in a way that makes visible the importance of the subject in terms of addressing identity and culture issues. It also pictures arts and crafts as activities in which children can participate, express themselves, and be creative problem solvers in a way that creates an ideal arena for sustainability education. This becomes even clearer when viewed in the light of contemporary research on sustainability as well as sloyd. Furthermore, as sustainability and sloyd are not connected, but described in separate sections of the curriculum, teachers are required to understand how they can support one another and to link them to each other in daily practice. The visual narratives from an ECEC setting make visible how sustainability education can be put to practice in sloyd activities. Sloyd can be a learning space that focuses on production rather than consumption. However, as ECEC daily practice often focus on practical matters and activities, it needs to be paired with reflective discussions.

With the great challenges posed by adapting to a post-fossil fuel civilization, the various forms of arts and crafts in sloyd education might afford interesting opportunities for exploring and reflecting on our relationships with materials and resources. In conclusion, the nexus of ECEC, sustainability, and sloyd provides a fruitful arena for creating sustainability education practices that prepare and equip children to meet the challenges of the planetary emergency and to participate in creating a better future for people and planet, where the web of life includes and respects both the human and the non-human.


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1The expression was used by Alden Meyer, the director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement on the 10th of December 2018 at the Climate Summit in Katowice, Poland.
2 Organisation Mondiale Pour L’Éducation Préscolaire, World Association for Early Childhood Education.
3 § 3, 2018/09/01/540, Act on early childhood education and care, 2018

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