Editors' Note: As prefaced in NAEYC’s “Developmentally Appropriate Practice” (DAP) position statement, the caring, consistent relationships fostered in families, the community, and high-quality early childhood programs can serve as a buffering effect for children facing adverse circumstances. As we continue to advance the availability and access of high-quality learning environments, the impact of climate on early childhood educators and programs is something we can no longer ignore.
As a result, NAEYC has been engaged with leaders of other national organizations, advocates, and researchers in examining the intersection of climate change and early childhood education through the Early Years Climate Action Task Force. We are excited to open up a broader conversation with our audiences through the blog post below from Joan Lombardi, a lifelong advocate for early childhood education and a trusted partner in this work alongside us.
You will note that many of the actions regarding climate change that are emerging in communities across the country link to DAP’s focus on creating a caring, equitable community of learners (Guideline 1) and to NAEYC early learning program standards on children’s health (5) and the learning environment (9).
Things seem to be changing so fast. Everyday issues facing young children and families—such as assuring that they have adequate food, clothing, housing, and quality child care; dealing with increasing threats of conflict, natural disaster, and climate change; and grappling with long-standing issues of racism and continued inequities—are becoming increasingly complex and unpredictable.
While all of these issues seem urgent and can feel overwhelming, addressing them depends on policy change and on both individual and collective action. When it comes to climate, the environment, and young children, a movement seems to be growing. However, that movement is at a crossroads. For it to grow, it needs
- increased awareness that environmental issues pose a serious threat to the developing child and must be addressed
- greater recognition that early childhood plays a pivotal role in helping to develop a sustainable future including mitigation and adaptation.
- expanded partnerships across child-serving, youth-serving, and environmental organizations and acknowledgment that these connections are critical to moving forward
What adds to the complexity is the interrelationships across current issues facing children, families, teachers, and communities. For example, in conversations I recently heard the following sentiments expressed:
“Many families want to take their children outside more, but either green spaces are not available, or safety issues serve as a serious challenge.”
“It seems like disasters such as flooding and fires are growing, yet we are so overwhelmed with just keeping our program going. We can’t seem to address basic needs, let alone the developing issues around climate.”
“Issues of environmental risks have threatened the children in our community for decades. Now climate change and air pollution are making them worse.”
These are real concerns, which bring special challenges. Yet evidence of the impact of environmental issues on pregnant women, young children, families, and communities is growing. We know that the developing child is vulnerable. Extreme heat brings risks to health, nutrition, and learning. Young children are always dependent on adults, particularly during disasters. Families are stressed by disruption and displacement. Environmental hazards plague too many communities.
Building strong early childhood systems and investing in children and families are now more important than ever. A good beginning in life provides children with the critical protective factors that help build resilience. When we take action, it provides a sense of agency and a sense that change is possible. It is heartening to see the number of stepped-up actions emerging in communities around the world. Advocates for young children and families are promoting nurturing care and protection by
- assuring that early childhood programs protect children from harmful substances and create healthy environments
- teaching children to care for the earth and connect to nature
- helping early childhood programs prepare and respond to disasters
- supporting families in times of stress, particularly during emergencies and displacement
- encouraging family-child activities that promote sustainability
- promoting community-based solutions to improve access to healthy food, gardening, farm-to-table initiatives, and improved nutrition
They are also centering early childhood as a key to a sustainable future by
- documenting and building public awareness about the impact of the environment on the development of young children and the importance of the early years
- partnering with youth and parent groups that are working to improve the environment
- speaking out for environmental justice and improved climate policies
- accessing new funds for green play places, healthier facilities, and modernized transportation systems
Reducing risk and expanding protective factors have always been twin goals of the child development movement. We are at a crossroads, but action brings hope. While these issues are urgent, every step matters. Every solution or idea brings another set of possibilities. Despite how slow it feels at times and the setbacks that occur along the way, together change can happen.
Resources from NAEYC
- Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, Fourth Edition
- "A Natural Choice: Learning Outdoors", Young Children’s November 2018 cluster topic
- “Supporting Young Children After Crisis Events” in the July 2020 issue of Young Children
- “Using Nature Contact to Support Children Under Stress” in the Fall 2021 issue of Teaching Young Children
- The American Public Health Association and ecoAmerica have published “Making the Connection: Climate Changes Children’s Health.” This resource includes a section on what can be done to mitigate the effects of climate change on children.
- Asia Pacific Regional Network for Early Childhood has embarked on a scoping study to put young children at the heart of climate action and environmental protection.
- The Children’s Environmental Network works to protect children from environmental health hazards and to promote a healthier environment.
- Cities Connecting Children to Nature, an initiative of the Children & Nature Network, supports communities to connect children to the benefits of nature more often and more equitably.
- The Early Years Climate Task Force will publish the US Early Years Climate Action Plan in late 2023.
- Natural Start Alliance, North American Association for Environmental Education works to ensure children have access to nature and the environment every day.
- The Climate Initiative works to empower the next generation of climate leaders through free educational programming and on the ground outreach .
- Our Kids Climate works to support, amplify and connect climate parent leaders and organizations
Joan Lombardi, PhD, has been championing the rights of young children and families for more than 50 years, both in the United States and around the world. She served as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development, USDHHS (2009–2011) in the Obama Administration and the first Director of the Child Care Bureau, among other positions, during the Clinton Administration (l993–98). Outside of public service, she has been directing the Early Opportunities Initiative, advising philanthropy, national and international organizations, and working to assure equity right from the start.