Challenging Taken-for-Granted Ideas in Early Childhood Education: A Critique of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory in the Age of Post-humanism

  • Sue ElliottEmail author
  • Julie M. Davis
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Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


A significant theorist in the early childhood education field is Urie Bronfenbrenner who, in 1979, proposed his “ecological systems theory,” sometimes referred to as the “ecological framework for human development.” This theory offers a multidimensional systems model for understanding the influence of family through to economic and political structures; thus, it presents a way of understanding the human life course from early childhood through to adulthood. In this theory, the ecological framework enables the mapping of information about individuals and their contexts over time in order to understand their diverse systemic interconnections. A critique of this model, however, from a childhoodnature stance, is that it ignores consideration of human-nature interconnections. Thus, it is a deeply anthropocentric model of human development that is at odds with emergent post-humanist thinking that seeks to de-center the human condition. In this chapter, we argue that the pervasiveness of this human-centered systems approach works against sustainability, in that it reinforces the sociocultural, political, and economic dimensions of being human at the expense of environmental interconnections. Drawing on systems theory, post-humanist theory, new materialism, a critical lens to pedagogy, and new sociology of childhood, we propose alternative ways of approaching Bronfenbrenner’s work that, both, facilitates human connections and strengthens children and nature connections that have implications for early childhood education philosophy and pedagogy.


Bronfenbrenner Systems theory Post-humanist theory Critical theory New materialism Sustainability Early childhood education Anthropocentricism 


The most telling criterion for evaluating the health of a society is “the concern of one generation for the next.” (p. 1) (Bronfenbrenner, p. xii cited in Pence, 1988)

In 1979, Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed his “ecological systems theory,” sometimes referred to as the “ecological framework for human development.” This theory is a multidimensional systems model for understanding human development within sociopolitical and cultural contexts and has significantly impacted the early childhood education field over almost four decades. Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) is often foregrounded as core to understandings of young children’s development both in research (Ballam, 2013; Dillon-Wallace, 2011; Rodgers, 2009) and early childhood education practice (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer, 2015; Bowes, Grace & Hodge, 2012; Sims & Hutchins, 2012). In particular, the child is perceived as both influenced and influential within the nested social systems they inhabit in this ecological model. The mapping of the dynamic interconnections between individuals and their contexts over time has invited a deepening of educators’ understandings about each child’s human-centered ecologies and trajectories in life.

As a psychologist, Bronfenbrenner was embedded in a significant period of change in the 1970s when shifts from developmental to sociological approaches first emerged, from describing and explaining human development to promoting the best for human development through examining individual-context relations (Lerner, 2005). He advocated the linking of human development to questions of social policy, in other words creating a theory-application bond. Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model was recognized as groundbreaking and transformative at the time. It must also be acknowledged that Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) signaled a revision of the images of children, from children as objects of developmental study to their positioning as socially active participants in the world and investigated in context. This revision was subsequently strengthened by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (UNICEF, 1989), theories of new sociology (Corsaro, 2005), and images of children as agentic (Jones, 2009; James, Jenks, & Prout, 1998). As co-authors, we are not the first to call for revisions to Bronfenbrenner’s model. For example, Christensen (2010) has proposed her own enhancement of his model based on her critique of the place of the individual’s role in relation to other actors, while Stanger (2011) has questioned the absence of ecological influencers in this human-centric model and argued for eco-sociological models. However, our examination focuses on nonhuman interrelationships. While much has been achieved with Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) based on human-human interconnections, now, four decades later in the new global epoch of the Anthropocene (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007), we can no longer ignore human-nature interconnections as imperatives when considering young children’s development and well-being.

Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) stands as an anthropocentric model of human development; thus, it is not conducive to understanding or underpinning matters concerned with global issues and global futures in the current epoch that is defined by the now dire and detrimental impacts of humans on the Earth. The continuing prioritization of human needs, wants, and relations is untenable when the strongest evidence is that humans are continuing to support lifestyles, systems, and structures that are destroying the life-giving capacities of the planet. Because we humans seem to need constant reminding, humanity’s ecological footprint has already exceeded the Earth’s capacity to regenerate and risen to the point where 1.6 planets are needed to provide resources sustainability. Further, the biodiversity index has fallen by more than 50% (World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 2016) as populations of nonhuman species continue to decline, greenhouse gas emissions have almost doubled, and diverse climate change impacts have become increasingly apparent (Howes, 2017; Oppenheimer & Anttila-Hughes, 2016).

Allied with ecological footprint impacts, there is clear evidence of rising inequalities on a number of indexes within and between countries and regions, with strong evidence of increasing gaps between generations (Currie & Deschenes, 2016; Olshansky et al., 2005). This final point makes a clear link between our concerns about sustainability and the ideas of Urie Bronfenbrenner who, as illustrated in the opening quotation to this chapter, himself, comments that the concern of one generation for the next is the true measure of societal health. Thus, we have taken the liberty of drawing on Bronfenbrenner’s own words as our starting point for this critique of his ecological model for human development, in the belief that he would have some measure of understanding of our concerns about its shortcomings in the era of (un)sustainability. This affords us the opportunity to think further about Bronfenbrenner’s concept of the chronosystem, as a way of thinking more critically and expansively about the time dimension in human development.

Further, Bronfenbrenner’s model is counter to emergent post-humanist thinking that has arisen in the humanities and in education in recent times that seeks to de-center the human condition (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). We argue that Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) more human-centered systems model works against sustainability – and, by extension, the development and well-being of children – in that it reinforces the sociocultural, political, and economic dimensions of being human at the expense of human-environmental interconnections. As outlined in the UNESCO (2010) dimensions of sustainable development framework, all dimensions are integral to achieving global sustainability, clearly identified as one of the “wicked problems” (Rittel & Weber, 1973) that impacts us all, but more so on children and future generations who will be around the longest bearing the brunt of (un)sustainable ways of living. This necessitates radical solutions – both in thinking, actions, and relationships to promote childhoodnature.

Lerner (2005) describes the reciprocity of relations fundamental to Bronfenbrenner’s model as “exchanges between the person and his or her ecology that function to benefit both” (p. xix). In this phrasing, “ecology” refers to a person’s social context; we note this may be feasible or optimal in the social worlds of humans, but humans have overstepped the mark in their relational reciprocity with the Earth. This incomplete appreciation of reciprocity within a human-centered idea of ecology is a point of interest for us and is reflected in solid rather than broken lines depicted in the concentric circles of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) hierarchical systems (Rogoff, 2003). Similarly, Stanger (2011) has argued for a recasting of the model stating “if we are to use ecosystem-based language, it needs to describe the complex interrelationships that support the long-term integrity of living systems rather than the short term singularity of human-designed marketing” (p. 167). He advocates the inclusion of humans and the physical/natural environment at each system level and also introduces a nanosystem level to denote the ecological systems beyond the naked eye. These points have caused us to think further about Bronfenbrenner’s use of the language of ecology.

“Ecology” was coined in the mid-1860s by German Scientist Ernst Haeckel, with connections to ancient Greek philosophers such as Hippocrates and Aristotle and their studies in natural history. Modern ecology became a more rigorous science in the late nineteenth century, with a surge in interest in 1960s commensurate with the rise of the environmental movement (Dritschilo, 2004). There are now strong historical and scientific ties between ecology, environmental management, and protection. The scope of ecology is organized into a nested hierarchy from the micro (genes and cells) to species, populations, communities, and ecosystems, through to the planetary (biosphere).

The idea of an “ecological niche” dates to 1917 with advances in the concept attributed to Hutchinson (1957) who defined the ecological niche as the relational position of a species or population in an ecosystem. The physical environment is seen as an integral part of the niche because it influences how populations of organism’s affect, and are affected by, resources and competitors. Use of the term “ecological niche” is prevalent in Bronfenbrenner’s theory and models and used extensively within child development literature. Berthelsen (2009), for example, writes “Bronfenbrenner argued that every child’s ecological niche is unique because each child experiences and takes part in different relationships and processes of interactions across proximal contexts” (p. 4). Further, in the context of new sociology theory, children are identified as “co-constructors, active creative social agents who produce their own unique children’s cultures while simultaneously contributing to the production of adult societies” (Corsaro, 2005, p. 3). Given such widespread usage to explain the uniqueness of children’s experiences, however, it is perhaps surprising that interactions with physical or natural environments in shaping children’s experiences is mostly absent from his model of human development.

Ecology is as much a human science as it is about the nonhuman and has led to the parallel/intersecting field of human ecology. Rachel Carson, for example, in her 1962 seminal book Silent Spring was one of the first biologists/ecologists to raise awareness of the power of humans to significantly alter the world. Similarly, at the time Ehrlich (1968) was the first to question population growth and the capacity of the Earth to sustain exponential human population growth. Human ecology is viewed by many as a truly interdisciplinary science that attracts psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and epidemiologists, for example, whose interests lie in human relations and natural systems. In the seminal work of human ecologist Gerald Young written in 1974, human ecology commonly has three ways of thinking about human-nature relationships: (1) the study of humans as the ecological dominant in plant and animal communities and systems; (2) humans as simply another animal being affected by and affecting the physical environment; and, (3) humans as different from animal life in general with interactions with the physical environment in a distinctive and creative way (Young, 1974). A truly interdisciplinary human ecology most likely addresses all three perspectives. The human and ecological transformations of the so-called Anthropocene has ushered in a new science referred to as “coupled human and natural systems” (Liu et al., 2007) reflecting a somewhat earlier systems theory notion of structural coupling (Maturana & Varela, 1987). This is described as two-way interactive relationships whereby the organism and the context change, recognizing that each impacts the other over time as in coevolution. Critically, the context is not inert or passive as viewed from a position of human dominance over nature, and in the epoch of the Anthropocene, this contextual view is blatantly untenable. Thus, the field of human ecology must seek to generate new integrated knowledges aimed at understanding the complexities of human-nature interactions as central to the quest for both human well-being and global sustainability.

It is interesting, however, that Bronfenbrenner’s use of terminology including “ecology,” ecological systems, and niches is unrelated to ecology’s predominant links with nature and natural systems. Of interest is that while the study of ecology is not treated as separate or distinct from humans by ecologists, Bronfenbrenner’s use of ecological terms as a psychologist was not inclusive of nature and natural systems, although he does make reference to “particular physical and material characteristics” of a microsystem setting (1979, p. 22). This oversight, we presume, is because the field of ecology was only becoming popularized at the time of his writing (Dritschilo, 2004). However, contemporaries of Bronfenbrenner were theorists with an interest in human-nature relationships including systems theorist Bateson (1979), deep ecologist Berry (1988), and, most notably, Lovelock (1979) and his Gaia hypothesis. Further, Berry (p. 240) explicitly stated “the natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence.” Undoubtedly, there are systemic impacts for human development to be recognized here. We can only surmise that while Bronfenbrenner was obviously aware of the field, he was not able or prepared to incorporate key ideas about human-nature interactions into his thinking and model of human development at the time.

Pivotal Career Moments from Our Professional Narratives

In further articulating this critique of one of early childhood educations’ “holy men,” both authors recognize pivotal career moments when we – quite separately – had reasons to question or found shortfalls in Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems model (1979). Davis was co-lecturing in an early childhood education course conducted in Papua New Guinea (PNG) with local early education “trainers” who were adding to their qualifications and experiences as elementary teacher educators. The unit of study combined families and community studies with a focus on Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979), sustainability aspects employing the UNESCO four-dimensional model of sustainable development (2010), and health promotion education – using both an ecological health-promoting schools model and Hancock’s mandala of health model of the human ecosystem (Hancock 1985). While the combined content fitted well together, Davis questioned the lack of recognition of the physical/natural environment in discussions about Bronfenbrenner’s work especially when this was so much a part of the livelihoods and knowledge systems of many PNG families and communities (Department of National Planning and Monitoring (DNPM), 2010). Recognition of their dependence on market gardens and subsistence farming that nurtures family and community health and well-being was unrepresented when using Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) yet was clearly evident in the sustainability and health models being considered. Similarly, Elliott who led the establishment of early childhood environmental education in Australia during the mid-1980s (Elliott & Emmett, 1991) can recall many attempts to seek appropriate literature to support practitioners in the field to think about environmental and sustainability issues as having pedagogical relevance with young children. She was captured by the title “ecological” in Bronfenbrenner’s work only to be disappointed that the model did not include any aspects of the physical or natural environment. Sharing these past career moments cemented our resolve to offer this critique, and potentially, new ways forward in thinking about how the theories and practices of early childhood education and education for sustainability can be brought together to better fit with the challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century (Figs. 1 and 2).
Fig. 1

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model of human development (1979). Retrieved from

Fig. 2

UNESCO (2010) four dimensions of sustainability model Retrieved from © UNESCO, 2010. All Rights Reserved

Thus, in this chapter, we draw on our academic, professional, and research experiences as well as our theoretical leanings toward systems theory, post-humanist theory, new materialism, critical theory, and new sociology of childhood to challenge Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979). We begin by offering an overview of his ecological systems model. Next, we outline the relevant theoretical underpinnings to our critique then offer specific critiques from our axiological and ontological stance. We attempt to offer some resolution to our concerns with vignettes from current early childhood education practice that challenge ways of facilitating children and nature connections with implications for early childhood education philosophy and pedagogy.

Bronfenbrenner: An Ecological Model for Human Development

In examining Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model, we firstly contextualize his model within the theoretical and discipline milieu of the time and then offer an overview of the model’s iterations with links to sustainability. We further provide some examples identifying how this model has variously been employed within the early childhood education sphere.

A Theoretical and Discipline Milieu

We acknowledge that there has been some literature investigating Bronfenbrenner’s theory and model(s). For example, Tudge, Mokrova, Hatfield and Karnik (2009) discussed the uses and abuses of his theory, but there appears to be a lack of rigorous academic critique (Taylor, 2016). We are aware of the work of Boon, Cottrell, King, Stevenson, and Millar (2012) who found value in applying his theory in a field allied with sustainability – natural disasters and community resilience. However, we argue that our discussion is the first to critique his work from the perspective of early childhood education and sustainability.

As previously acknowledged, although his initial model was recognized to be groundbreaking and transformative at the time of publication – perhaps even a theoretical disruption – we recognize that it occurred when shifts toward sociocultural theorizing were underway within the field of human development (Vygotsky, 1978). Perhaps Bronfenbrenner can be seen as a pioneer in breaking down the disciplinary silos of the time. Vygotsky’s theories of social constructivism and social constructionism, first translated in 1978, had instigated a movement away from earlier developmental theorizing (Gesell, 1950; Piaget & Inhelder, 1962). The field of human development was evolving at this time as demonstrated by Berthelsen, Lunn, and Johansson (2009, p. 184), and this strengthens our argument for an urgent reevaluation now, four decades later, when anthropocentric models are ill-equipped to foster sustainable futures for all. As has been already commented upon, “Bronfenbrenner moved the field from being an area of scholarship that described what ‘is’ in human development to a science that, through its collaborations with policy makers, practitioners, and other social change agents, envisioned what ‘could be’ about human development” (Lerner, 2005, pp. xii–xiii). Similarly, we question what “could be” and what “must be” envisioned about human development in the global epoch of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2007).

In essence, the point we make here is that Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model was framed within the human-centered sociopolitical-environmental context of its time. Concerns about the state of the environment were only beginning to be understood, for example, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) had just been released, and Erhlich’s (1968) population predictions were alarmingly dire. However, concerns as a global issue and connections between human health and well-being were yet to be widely recognized. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm Conference) in 1972 was the UN’s first major conference on international environmental issues and marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics. Also, pertinent to this milieu are the then-contemporary environmental education initiatives such as The Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) and Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992) which demonstrated a shift in thinking toward sustainability as comprising multiple dimensions, namely, economic, social, and environmental; and this prompted longer-term human thinking and action for the intergenerational equity of all species. Concurrently in the field of health promotion was the World Health Organization’s Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion (1986) that emphasized that “Good health is a major resource for social, economic and personal development and an important dimension of quality of life. Political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, behavioural and biological factors can all favour health or be harmful to it” (p. 1). We question, was Bronfenbrenner (1999, 2001) aware of these shifts as he continued to reframe his original ecological model, through the 1990s, to become the bioecological model of 2001? We see our reevaluation of his model as being in the same vein.

Iterations on the Model

In referring to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model, it is important to recognize that the first iteration published in 1979, and most often referred to in the literature, was not the only version. This initial model is frequently described as contextually focused acknowledging the diverse social contexts influencing human development. Bronfenbrenner depicted these social contexts as concentric nested circles comprising the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The microsystem alerts us to the child’s immediate settings, those settings that a child participates in on a daily basis including his/her home, school, or early childhood center. The mesosystem is about interactions and interrelationships between the microsystems, and in our tertiary teaching experience this is a somewhat perplexing system level given the lack of specific settings or entities. The exosystems are those social structures or settings both formal and informal where a child is not directly involved but may have indirect impacts for a child such as a parent’s workplace or extended family. The most outer system is the macrosystem that comprises the broader level policies, political institutions, and cultural beliefs that have import for all systems. These system-level contexts and interactions were initially reflected as given points in time, but Bronfenbrenner subsequently added the chronosystem to denote dynamic system changes over the human life span. Also, although he aligned the model with nested Russian babushka dolls (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p. 3), the various systems or structural levels are not discrete, but integrated throughout the course of human development. Bronfenbrenner (1999, 2001) engaged in an ongoing reassessment and critique of his original model leading to various iterations over time. Here we highlight key aspects of these iterations relevant to our critique.

A focus in Bronfenbrenner’s later 1990s theorizing is the person-process-context-time (PPCT) model where the interrelationships between these four concepts come to the fore (Lerner, p. xv), overriding the contextual-only focus of his original model (1979). In this later iteration, interrelationships were framed as proximal processes – reciprocal, enduring, and increasingly complex (Bronfenbrenner, 1995, 1999) – such descriptors resonate well today.

However, we raise concerns when such interrelationships most often allude to everyday anthropocentric objects and symbols such as toys and hobbies (Bronfenbrenner, 1999) when it is obvious that people also interact intimately on a moment-by-moment basis with the physical environment, for example, daily weather ranging from the inconvenience of rain or wind to extreme weather events impact human lives. Only now with climate change modeling are the impacts of changing weather patterns on human life courses, particularly children’s, evident and the reciprocity of these interrelationships with the physical environment being recognized (Zivin & Shrader, 2016). In addition, while the PPCT model acknowledges the personal or dispositional characteristics that any individual brings to their active interactions in social contexts (Bronfenbrenner, 1995), he describes such active interactional focus as “proclivities to set in motion, sustain and enhance processes of interaction between the organism and particular features of persons, objects and, symbols in its environment” (Bronfenbrenner, 1995, p. 634). We hold no argument with such proclivities and view them as core to transformative processes for sustainability. We consider that these dispositional characteristics do not go far enough. Our main argument is that a deeper and broader interpretation of environment needs to be part of systems where these tendencies are enacted. In the context of our critique, might we now include sustainable worldviews, ethics, and values held by the individual?

Considering Time

In support of his theorizing, Bronfenbrenner (1999) also offered four guiding life course principles that highlight change over time. He acknowledges each individual’s life course is shaped by conditions and events during their historical life period, and the timing of biological and social transitions throughout this period is key. In Bronfenbrenner’s (1917–2005) own lifetime, the challenges of human-centered social and economic change ranging from world wars to industrialization and evolving family dynamics were at the fore as evidenced by his examples (Bronfenbrenner, 1999). As we have indicated previously, the current global historical period of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2007) and the now ongoing transitions in human lives attributed to climate change (Currie & Deschenes, 2016) offer a compelling rationale for rethinking Bronfenbrenner’s model and its various iterations (1979, 1999, 2001). Bronfenbrenner (p. 22) reminds us in Life Course Principle 4, for example, that “within the limits and opportunities afforded by the historical, cultural and socioeconomic conditions in which they live, human beings themselves influence their own development – for better or for worse -through their own choices and acts.” The inherent sentiments are clear; our argument is to also include nonhuman environmental conditions and to consider all “choices and acts” as having consequences beyond those of current individuals, i.e., to consider the intergenerational legacy of our choices and acts.

Furthermore, in reviewing his original model, Bronfenbrenner (1979) recognized the role of biological determinants of the individual, and a bioecological model was proposed (Bronfenbrenner, 2001), thus, bringing together human social ecologies and individual human biological determinants into a more comprehensive whole. However, we argue that this development is still not comprehensive enough for those advocating for childhoodnature aligned worldviews that integrate humans and nature and who have concerns for long-term intergenerational sustainable futures. Stanger (2011) has previously stated that the chronosystem must be extended to include evolutionary time scales. Further, we might provoke, is the nonhuman and/or physical environment potentially framed beyond these nested human systems and all encompassing, or situated within and impacted by human social systems, or integral and across all nested systems. Reframing these intersections over more than a human lifetime offers a unique challenge that we return to in later pages of this chapter.

Lastly, we do not purport to offer a comprehensive overview of Bronfenbrenner’s theorizing and iterations here but have targeted those aspects that most invite both critique and offer support from our global sustainability and eco-centric stance. We acknowledge the challenges inherent in this approach as others have cautioned about the overly simplistic interpretations of Bronfenbrenner’s work which abound in both research and practitioner literature (Tudge et al., 2013). Nevertheless, we are inspired by Bronfenbrenner to proceed when he states “the possibilities of ecologies as yet untried … hold a potential for human natures yet unseen, perhaps possessed of a wiser blend of power and compassion than has thus far been manifested” (1979, p. xiii).

Bronfenbrenner’s Model and Early Childhood Education

Along with the theories of Vygotsky (1978), Bronfenbrenner’s theory (1979) has been significant in shaping early childhood education worldwide (Härkönen, 2003; Sims & Hutchins, 2012; Penn, 2005) including in early childhood teacher education, as a theoretical basis for early childhood education curriculum and pedagogy and in research. The following diverse examples offer insights into the range and depth of impacts.

In the early 1960s, for example, Bronfenbrenner was specifically engaged with the early childhood education field through the American government-funded Head Start program (American Psychologist’s Association, 2004). At a time of national social justice concern, the program aimed to address the deficits experienced by young children living in poverty through early intervention. The program involved coordinated efforts by professionals, communities, and parents (Hinitz, 2014), and the intent was to offer a more holistic approach to promoting young children’s development through early childhood education. The Head Start program has been sustained over decades now and facilitated interventions with some 32 million children (Head Start Office, n.d.). Multiple research studies have identified benefits, but questions are still raised about the longer-term outcomes for children (Hinitz, 2014). Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) approach to human development as occurring within multiple interactive social systems continues to underpin the Head Start programs today, but rethinking is needed given continuing social inequities and especially those being exacerbated with climate change (Currie & Deschenes, 2016).

More recently, Krishnan (2010) described a Canadian provincial early childhood development-mapping project that utilized an Early Development Index (EDI) instrument based on Bronfenbrenner’s model (Janus & Offord, 2007). The overall EDI aim was to offer estimates of child development at the time of school entry with a focus on the multilevel systems and interactions that accounted for each child’s development. Implementation of the mapping project led to development of a conceptual ecological model taking into consideration individual and environmental factors, again with a focus on addressing social inequalities. In reporting this project, Krishan (2010) recognized the “physical environment” as a variable within the broad scope of neighborhoods and community, proffering examples including urbanization, nonprofit organizations, and transportation resources, thus retaining an anthropocentric lens. However, Krishan (2010, p. 14) notes as a concluding limitation to the conceptual ecological model “Among other things, an aspect not addressed in the proposed model but critical to children’s development is that of physical environment, including exposure to toxins and pesticides in a variety of contexts.” This limitation offers a glimpse into a less anthropocentric lens, akin to the health models previously noted, but from our stance much more is feasible.

Further, we highlight an early childhood education tertiary text, one of a number citing Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) as foundational to the publication (Arthur et al., 2015; Bowes et al., 2012; Page & Tayler, 2016). The text by Sims and Hutchins (2012) focuses on program planning for infants and toddlers supporting a holistic approach to embracing the multiplicity of systems and interactions that critically impact on early development. Advocacy for infant and toddler programs to best support their learning and development is applauded; however, these authors only refer to the physical environment for the establishment of appropriate indoor and outdoor playspaces. This is not the global physical environment related to environmental and sustainability crises that we identify as a “blind spot” (Wagner, 1993) for many early childhood education authors. We argue that continued reference to Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) anthropocentric model fails to fully convey the impacts of the physical environment in the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2007). For example, Zivin and Shrader (2016) state that higher global temperatures are linked to increasing global rates of childhood disease, plus water and food scarcity with potential to seriously impede early development leading to lifelong consequences. This is not to deny the complexity of human social, economic, and political system factors impacting very young children but to argue for a more inclusive and eco-centrically informed consideration of all local and global factors.

In these examples, we note how Bronfenbrenner’s model has contributed to shaping early childhood education as anthropocentric, and its use continues almost without question to create explicitly human-centered approaches when examining children’s learning and development. One exception is McCrea and Littledyke’s (2015) adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model that offers practical guidance for educators seeking to link his model to education for sustainability and the pillars of sustainability with a focus on children’s health and well-being. While this adaptation offers much potential, our intent here is to more deeply theorize our concerns for the early education more broadly, particularly with reference to post-humanist thinking. Overall, the exemplars above give little or no place for more eco-centric and holistic views of human/child interests as shaped both by and with the physical environment. The world has changed since the 1970s, and Bronfenbrenner’s work needs reconceptualizing or disrupting to account for the contemporary challenges of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2007).

Theories Driving Our Reevaluation of Bronfenbrenner’s Models in Early Childhood Education

In this section, we discuss five theoretical perspectives that have influenced our critique of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) model and offer a way forward for addressing the dilemmas that have become evident through this critique. We believe these offer new insights into thinking about and enacting early childhood education in light of the sustainability challenges and complexities of lived experiences and relationships in the twenty-first century.

Systems Theory Perspective

Systems theory is core to the discussions here, and we recognize the contemporary systems theorists who built interdisciplinary bridges by examining mathematical systems, biological systems, and human social systems. In particular, Bateson (1979), and Maturana and Varela (1987) identified the primacy of relationships over objects in the interweaving of social and ecological systems in a holistic manner. “A system may be defined as a set of elements standing in interrelation among themselves and with the environment” (Von Bertalanffy, 1972, p. 417). A key tenet of systems is that they self-regulate to maintain stability through a constant messaging and responsive recalibration to promote ongoing stability and adaptiveness. If humans and nature are considered as a dualism, as was the case in the 1970s and still is for many, we can posit humans as unable to perceive, respond, and adaptively recalibrate. The resulting disequilibrium now has a name, the Anthropocene (Steffen et al., 2007). The current disequilibrium reflects dynamic systems theory (Thelen & Smith, 1994), which emphasizes the ongoing fluctuations of systems over an extended time frame from simplicity to complexity and back again.

Further, the persistence of dualism can be linked to the conceptualization of systems as open or closed proposed by Von Bertalanffy (Weckowicz, 2000). An open system is characterized by ongoing exchanges between internal elements of the system and the environment, whereas closed systems are discrete or removed. Perhaps for too long, humans have perceived their existence within closed “human-centric systems” like Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979), removed from the physical environment and without responsibilities for ongoing reciprocal exchanges. Bateson doubted we could survive as a species if humans persisted in viewing the world in terms of dualisms. He asserted (Bateson, 1979) that mind and nature were one organism and the influential interrelationships between mind and nature promoted stability as in one whole organism akin to Lovelock’s (1979) Gaia hypothesis. Humans are only part of the Earth’s systems and can never control them; hence, the dynamics and reciprocity of interrelationships between humans and nature must be recognized in any theorizing about human development.


As previously noted post-humanist thinking seeks to de-center the human condition and challenge entrenched human-nature dualisms. Post-humanism is not one distinct paradigm with a readily traceable lineage, but “a constellation of different theories, approaches, concepts and practices” (Taylor, 2016, p. 6). Links are evident to ecofeminism, queer theory, Indigenous theories, deep ecology, systems theory, new materialism, and eco-centrism. In essence post-humanism invites an exploration of different ontologies about being in the world with a relational and ethical focus to others, both human and more-than-human. In moving beyond dualisms, Latour (2004) proposed “common worlds” as collective and relational spaces with shared agencies. Common worlds are “full of entangled and uneven historical and geographical relations, political tensions, ethical dilemmas and unending possibilities” (Taylor, 2013, p. 62). Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979) does suggest as entanglement of human interrelationships over time, but we echo post-humanist Braidotti (2013) in seeing the “potential to contest the arrogance of anthropocentrism and the exceptionalism of the humans” (p. 66). The implications of post-human theorizing are now being acknowledged in the education field (Taylor & Hughes, 2016). Common world pedagogies aim to avoid children-as-subjects learning about nature-as-object; it is about learning with or becoming worldly with the others in the human and more-than-human collective (Taylor, 2013). Further, Rooney (2016) describes “common worlding” as a pedagogical approach to exploring these messy, shared, and enmeshed worlds with generative potential for thinking differently about ethics and relations. Post-humanist thinking brings a unique ethical lens to how humans perceive themselves in the world with others and challenges the anthropocentric foundations of Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979).

New Materialism

Closely aligned with post-humanist thinking, “new materialism” – also sometimes referred to as socio-materialism – is a term applied to a series of theoretical movements across several fields including philosophy, biology, and the human sciences that critiques anthropocentrism and links social and material conditions (social relations, other species, physical context, objects) to human consciousness and learning (McKenzie & Bieler, 2016). Such a critique challenges the long-held idea of human exceptionality over other entities (Weldemariam, 2017). It emphasizes the self-organizing powers of many nonhuman processes, explores dissonant relations between such processes and human/cultural practices, rethinks the sources of ethics beyond the human, and commends the folding of a planetary dimension more overtly and regularly into studies of global, international, and national and state governance (Connelly, 2013). A new materialist perspective, rather than promoting nature/environment as something to be saved, controlled, or mastered, emphasizes the mutually constitutive and entangled relationships between humans within a “common world” (Latour, 2004; Taylor, 2013). Exploration of relations from a new materialism framework does dramatically portray the fragility of “materials” and relationships today. As a theoretical tool, it forces us to problematize anthropocentric thinking and invites us to rethink human relationships with the physical world/environment.

Critical Theory

Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to theories oriented only to understanding or explaining how societies and social structures work or don’t work. Critical theory provides a basis for investigating power relationships, and, as a result, it has a strong focus on the marginalization of some social groups (Freire, 1999 first published 1972; Habermas, 1971). Historically, these groups have included the poor, women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. Critical theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep us from a full and true understanding of how the world works. Critical theory can be recognized today in many feminist theories and feminist approaches to conducting social science, critical race theory, cultural theory, gender and queer theory, and in media theory and media studies. It has also infiltrated the ways that scholars do research with, for example, critical action research and critical discourse analysis (CDA) being just two approaches derived from applying a critical orientation to research problems.

As it relates to environmental and sustainability matters, marginalized groups include children, future generations, as well as nonhuman species (Borkfelt, 2011), places, and even natural elements, such as water, soil, and air. There is a significant body of work that investigates and theorizes, specifically, issues of the environment from a critical theoretical lens, for example, Luke (2003).

Critical theory also assists in understanding how education systems have played their part in this marginalization (Stevenson, 2007). In particular, Stevenson (2007) argues that there is a fundamental contradiction in purpose and practice between what schools do, i.e., primarily construct a workforce to build and maintain capitalism perceived by many as the root cause of the problems, and issues confronting the globe; thus, growing inequalities and environmental/climate disruptions are evident. The goals of a critical education are to seek to empower learners to identify the social and cultural issues that lead to such exploitation and to change things for the better. The application of Freirean ideas of emancipation – with a focus on giving voice, engaging in dialogue and transformation – has been embraced by several educationalists (Apple, 1996; Giroux, 1992; McLaren, 1989) and is known as critical pedagogy with application across a broad range of schooling subjects (Haque, 2007). These principles are also deeply embedded in approaches to environmental and sustainability education. In McLaren’s recent work (2015), he has updated his discussions linking environmentalism and critical pedagogy and now uses the term “critical ecopedagogy” that is discussed later in this chapter.

New Sociology of Childhood

Lastly, we refer to the new sociology of childhood (Corsaro, 2005) and perceive this theoretical lens as firmly aligned to the empowerment of learners and change for the better as described above. Childhood is most often recognized as a predetermined biological stage, but James et al. (1998) have long-argued childhood is constructed, culturally determined, and changes over time. Emerging in the 1980s alongside the UNCRC (1989), new sociology of childhood departed from traditional images of childhood where children were seen as incomplete individuals disconnected from society at large, or as a universal cohort passively enculturated by adults (Corsaro, 2005). New sociology positions children as active contributors to and interpreters of their social worlds; they are social actors in globally diverse social systems with individual accounts and voices to be valued, respected, and responded to by others (James et al., 1998). These accounts largely resonate with Bronfenbrenner’s model (1979), but across the spheres of early childhood education and education for sustainability, such images strongly impact educators’ pedagogical approaches and offer potential for researching with children. Christensen and James (2000) initially promoted a shift toward authentically recognizing young children as research participants and experts about their experiences; and, this approach often underpins early childhood education for sustainability research (Davis & Elliott, 2014). In these contexts, children are perceived as more than participatory individuals across multiple social systems; they are active social change agents with potentially far reaching impacts (Mackey, 2014).

In summary, we argue – through the alternative theoretical perspectives introduced above – that continued reliance on Bronfenbrenner’s theory of child development in early childhood education works against ideas embedded in sustainability and education for sustainability (EfS). These include ideas about humans as interrelated with nature and the more-than-human world rather than as separate from; humans as critical thinkers and ethical social beings with collective potential for change rather than as disempowered individuals; and, humans as integral to the dynamics of interactive global systems beyond human life times. Reliance on human-centric systems is both outdated and deeply inadequate in the twenty-first century we postulate and serves to alienate and disempower children in dealing with contemporary lives and challenges as much as it has served to support and nurture their development in positive ways. However, as stated earlier, we consider that Bronfenbrenner’s idea of the chronosystem offers a bridge between human-centric ideas of growth and development and our contemporary concerns with sustainability because of the reference to time, the future, and intergenerational connections.

What Might New Ecological Models of Human Development Look Like?

As we have researched for, and authored, this chapter, we have played with several models of our own about how to represent Bronfenbrenner’s ideas within the contemporary milieu of sustainability. In our reconceptualization of new ways of looking at the work of Bronfenbrenner (1979), we have engaged in a playful dialogic of models. Here we share our initial possibilities for (re)presenting his work. We have not come up with a “best” model. Indeed, we have three models – each using Bronfenbrenner’s more recent bioecological model (2001) as a starting point.

Model 1: Overlay Bronfenbrenner’s Model with UNESCO’s 4 Dimensions

Initially struck by the circularity of both the UNESCO (2010) model of sustainability incorporating four dimensions and Bronfenbrenner’s (2001) model, can we simply superimpose one on the other? If so, all dimensions of sustainability are overtly seen to overlay and impact all the hierarchical systems levels of Bronfenbrenner’s social model (2001), adding significant depth and relational complexity. For example, the natural/conservation dimension which comprises “all living things resources and life support systems” (UNESCO, 2010) intersects and can be mapped to the individual, the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem at any point in time and over time as the hierarchical human systems and natural world evolve and change enmeshed together (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Model 1: Overlay Bronfenbrenner’s model with UNESCO’s 4 dimensions

Model 2: Add a Biosystems Level as All Encompassing Around Bronfenbrenner’s Macrosystem

Another possibility is to recognize biosystems (physical and nonhuman elements) as an additional hierarchical level for Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (2001), depicted as an additional outer concentric circle. Hence, biosystems become all encompassing beyond the macrosystem of human-centric policies, values, and cultural beliefs. The outer biosystems level has impacts at all levels in the human-centered hierarchy of systems, and, equally, humans are impacting the biosystems as realized in global climate change. We move beyond broken lines to depict the permeability of the hierarchical systems (McCrea & Littledyke, 2015; Rogoff, 2003) to a shaded model depicting systemic embeddedness. These changes acknowledge that the dynamics of biosystems ultimately determine human development and global sustainability as a whole (Fig. 4).
Fig. 4

Model 2: Add a biosystems level as all-encompassing around Bronfenbrenner’s macrosystem

Model 3: Add a Biosystems Level Both Centrally and Outside Bronfenbrenner’s Macrosystem

There may also be merit in strengthening human interrelationships with biosystems by recognizing biosystems centrally in Bronfenbrenner’s model (2001) as well as beyond the macrosystem as in Model 2. The individual at the center is intimately and daily actively interacting with local biosystems, whether or not humans are aware of this relationship – with capacities to drive agentic change that may ripple outward. This combined model reflects the “act local, think global” maxim of the environmental movement and identifies individuals and the microsystems they inhabit with capacities for action and change across the hierarchies of social systems and complexities of global interrelationships over time (Fig. 5).
Fig. 5

Model 3: Add a biosystems level both centrally and outside Bronfenbrenner’s macrosystem

We have no one preferred model or response at this time, but are keen to continue playing with Bronfenbrenner’s model to give it relevance for today in early childhood education.

Some Resolutions to Addressing the Shortcomings of Bronfenbrenner’s Theory in Contemporary Early Childhood Education

From our positions as specialists and researchers in early childhood education for sustainability over the past 25 years, we know that there is a small but growing number of educators who have engaged with newer frames of early childhood education with sustainability in mind. In this section, three vignettes contributed by leading educators in early childhood pedagogical practice demonstrate how reimagined Bronfenbrenner (1979, 2001) models that account for a sustainability paradigm might look in practice. In Table 1 following the vignettes, we offer an analysis of links between the approaches described in the vignettes and our critiques and theorizing. For the time being, we collectively call such approaches “critical eco-pedagogies for early childhood education,” after the work of McLaren (2015).
Table 1

Linking critiques with theories and critical ecopedagogies for early childhood education



Key ideas

Practice implications

Vignette examples


Critical theory as linked to critical discourse analysis

Contextualizing language and the dynamics of changing meanings

Interrogating language and making meanings with children

QP – our definition of community landscape is what makes up our community the bush, the urban, and the social; collectively this is our natural environment

QP – educators who value children’s ability to play plus their wonder and curiosity, take time to listen, and value children’s perspectives

New sociology of childhood

Children recognized as active social participants and their perceptions valued

Positioning children as skilled and knowledgeable social learning participants

BEEC – the learner, no matter what their age, is placed at the center of the learning seen as a competent and capable problem-solver

Contexts and relationships


Encompass more-than-human relationships

Examining what defines ethical relationships with the human and more-than-human world with children through pedagogical practices for sustainability

BW – when relationships are formed with land, life is given to the two parties, and the interactions are respectful and considerate

New materialism

BEEC – relationships matter, both to others and the Earth (country)

QP – educators are in a strong position to foster relationships with children, families, and people of our community, urban, commercial, and natural worlds

Ethical relationships

Inviting immersion in natural contexts to facilitate relationships

BEEC – we believe this full immersion provides the experiences and helps connect individuals to the natural world


Systems theory

Systems as interactional at all levels and not entity focused

Acknowledging and/or mapping all relationships with children

BW – children’s spiritual connection to country, connection to kin, and connection to where they are from and who they are


BW – respects the interdependence between human, animal, and nature

New materialism

Systems as comprising human and nonhuman entities and interrelationships

Recognizing the reciprocity and responsiveness of interrelationships as integral to the functioning of open systems

BEEC – it is when you are outside in the forest that humans begin to see that they are part of the whole, and not the whole itself

Systems as open and not closed or human-centric only

QP – the aim is to view our learning community and our broader local community as all part of a community ecosystem, and each one of these parts is interconnected. Our small community is also part of a larger global community

Time dimensions


More-than-human life histories, global time frames

Discussing equity issues now and for future generations both human and nonhuman

BW – this incorporates ways of the past, present, and future and respects those that have walked this land before them, those that walk with them now, and those that will walk this land in the future

Dynamic systems theory

Dynamics of change over time

BW – family connections and ancestry is vital in developing strong identities, but this is never in isolation to knowing the land one is from and the stories of that land over time

Acknowledging both human and nonhuman change over time

BEEC – meanwhile the forest sits and waits, going nowhere

The individual

Systems theory

Systems are collective with impacts from one entity influencing all parts of the system

Contextualizing with children about the impacts each individual sustainability action has for collective well-being of others both human and nonhuman

QP – together educators, children, and their families are developing a growing awareness of our community, the community in which we live, and seeing our community landscape as being our broader family

Developing skills for sharing perspectives and working collectively in and with the community for change

QP – collaboration between educators, children, and families promotes educators’ strengths to step outside our space

QP – we need to explore, imagine, reflect, and evaluate with separate views, but if EfS is to be strong, we need to bring these views together to merge as a community of thinkers striving for the connections between EfS and larger social change

QP – together striving to see the interconnections between education and larger social change

Children’s agency

Critical theory

Children as empowered and global change agents through active social participation

Practicing advocacy and action for sustainability with children in relation to meaningful issues

BW – critically reflect on their custodianship rights and responsibilities

New sociology of childhood

BW – they know that when on other people’s country, they have responsibility to respect their country to look after it and ensure it is cared for

Questioning sustainable practice norms, ethics, and interrogating dilemmas and conflicts

BW – activists for social change in sustainability as there is so much to protect

BEEC – encouraging children to ask questions but by answering with a question such as an “I wonder …” can deepen the engagement, the experience, and, ultimately, the connection

Recognizing and listening to children’s voices

Inviting and promoting children’s active participation in social change

BEEC – children understand the interconnections of the natural world, understand ecological issues, understand the environmental issues and problems and most importantly, and understand their role and how they can make a difference

QP – to critically engage with children around EfS, educators need to use their imagination, to act with ethical ingredients and challenge themselves to step outside their spaces. Just as we ask the children to also challenge and extend their thinking

BW bubup wilam, BEEC bunyaville EEC, QP quirindi preschool

Vignette 1: Bubup Wilam Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, Victoria Lisa G. Thorpe, Gunditjmara, Gunnai woman CEO and Angie Zerella, Education and Training Manager

Bubup Wilam is a self-determined Aboriginal Child and Family Centre catering for the education, health, and well-being needs of Aboriginal children aged 6 months to 6 years and their families. The purpose and the philosophy of the Centre was developed by the local Aboriginal community for Aboriginal people. Underpinned by Aboriginal, social justice and rights-based pedagogies, we aim to support children in collaboration with their families to build strong and proud Aboriginal identities as their foundation for lifelong learning health and well-being.

With the inequities in health, well-being, and educational outcomes for Aboriginal people in Australia, Bubup Wilam strives to provide children and their families with the support they need to be self-determining in their own lives enhancing their opportunity to reach their full human potential. This requires a holistic pedagogical approach which is underpinned by an Aboriginal perspective. This is inclusive of children’s spiritual connection to country, connection to kin, and connection to where they are from and who they are. This incorporates ways of the past, present, and future and respects those that have walked this land before them, those that walk with them now, and those that will walk this land in the future.

Our connection to country program supports children’s spiritual connection to their world and respects the interdependence between human, animal, and nature. It challenges them to critically reflect on their custodianship rights and responsibilities. Our children respect the spirit of the land and are taught not take anything off country as you remove the spirit and disrupt the space. We only use what we need while on country and leave as little damage behind as is possible. The hierarchy of human as dominant is challenged as the life and spirit of all things is acknowledged, and respect and equity for everything in our space is embedded in the way interactions occur within it.

Modern-day tools are not used due to the damage they would inflict on whatever they come into contact with. When relationships are formed with land, life is given to the two parties and the interactions are respectful and considerate. Our children learn about all living things that they share their space with, and they research habitats, respect potential dangers, and learn to live respectfully and in unison with all aspects of their world and all who share it with them. They learn to appreciate the complexities of life and their responsibility in keeping their world healthy, well, clean, and nourished.

Our children know the country they are from and the extra responsibility they have as traditional owners of that land. This gives them strength and connects them strongly to their identity as young Aboriginal children. They know that when on other people’s country, they have responsibility to respect their country to look after it and ensure it is cared for. For our children, we are on Wurundjeri country and we acknowledge this every day. This naturally ensures a world for sustainability is embraced; this is through a relationship of historical connections, respect, and equity.

The challenge for our center in embracing this pedagogy is the cost of taking our children out on country in local bushlands, but this is far outweighed by the outcomes for our children and their families. Many of our families participate in the program which brings a richness of knowledge that is shared with the children. Being on country enables our children to connect to nature in a much richer way than in the yard at our service as they have a much deeper respect for the way they interact with their world and are activists for social change in sustainability as there is so much to protect. Connecting with country so richly has changed the way both children and educators interact with country back at our service where we extend on the richness of learning provided to us.

Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model focuses on the impact of human connections and relationships on the lives of children. This is also inclusive of the political context and the time, era, and place that the child grows up. However, it silences the importance of the natural world and the impact this has on children’s lives. For our children this is central to their healthy life outcomes and to their identity. Family connections and ancestry is vital in developing strong identities, but this is never in isolation to knowing the land one is from and the stories of that land over time. Protecting land through an Aboriginal lens is central to health and well-being. A true ecological systems theory cannot silence the importance of this (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6

Bubup Wilam Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, Victoria

Vignette 2: Bunyaville Environmental Education Centre, Queensland Noeleen Rowntree, Principal

Bunyaville Environmental Education Centre (EEC) sits in the middle of the forest. To enter this forest, you rumble along a dirt road with car wheels crunching on gravel. As you step out from your vehicle onto the earth, you are surrounded and immediately dwarfed by very tall gum trees. The many bird sounds chatter around you. You have arrived in the “classroom” of the Bunyaville EEC – the forest and the bush. Bunyaville EEC is a Department of Education and Training of Queensland facility. Bunyaville EEC accommodates all ages from birth to adult, formal school years P-Year 12, kindergarten, and early childhood from birth to 5 years.

At Bunyaville EEC we value a world where people care for themselves, others, and place (connecting to country), taking learning outside through experiencing, connecting, and enabling everybody to be part of sustainable futures. For us, it is about learning naturally and relationships matter, both to others and the Earth (country). Bunyaville as a place is very important, and it is the place that shapes our pedagogy across all age groups. As all of us from birth onward live more and more urban lives, connection and/or reconnection to natural places needs to be scaffolded. Across the years perceived fears of the bush have shaped our program design particularly in the early years. Most children are with us for the whole day with children from birth to 5 years spending 2 h with us outside. Whatever the age, it is important for the experience to be positive and joyous. For our visitors, time becomes irrelevant once we have entered the forest. Time doesn’t seem to matter as we explore, play, discover, learn, tell stories, feel, smell, and touch the natural world with each person immersed totally in the moment of being in the natural world. It is this total immersion that suspends time. We believe this full immersion provides the experiences and helps connect individuals to the natural world.

What does it look like when place is at the center of your pedagogy? Purposeful program design and teacher pedagogy scaffold the learning for everyone. The learner, no matter what their age, is placed at the center of the learning seen as a component and capable problem-solver. Purposeful program design moves the learner from the familiar into the less familiar forest experience. Every learner spends time in the forest. So, if I am 2, 3, or 4 years of age, I arrive to see some familiar things that I can do. Maybe there is a cardboard box, storybooks, wooden blocks, paint brushes, and water that I can use immediately. This invites young children to engage in readily recognizable opportunities for play. Remembering that this may be my first time as a child to have been in a forest, the familiar provides an easy place to start. Meanwhile, the forest sits and waits, going nowhere while I play with the familiar. Ever present the forest waits, and in a very short time we all eagerly transition seamlessly into the forest.

When in the forest, it is the many different places that drive the learning. Every place in the forest provides different opportunities. The natural materials, the special animal homes, the fallen log, and giant tree become the places for learning. Being attentive to the many parts, developing stories, adopting an inquiry approach, being in naive fellow, or empowering children to look, touch, feel, and see and encouraging children to ask questions, by answering with a question such as “I wonder …,” can deepen the engagement, the experience, and ultimately, the connection.

Knowledge of the place matters here also. This is knowledge of what works best in what part of the forest. For example, knowledge of where to sit children comfortably to tell a story, where to invite children to explore freely, and how to set boundaries with children when there are no walls. Knowledge of where conversations are best had and where might the wallaby sleep on a hot day? Where will we need extra equipment to add to the captured moment? How to help children to see the micro in the vastness of the forest? Also, knowing the coolest route to walk after a hot morning. The teacher needs to understand and to have experienced the place. The place drives what you do. As the teacher, the place speaks to you about the relevant pedagogy as you flow through the natural area. It is when you are outside in the forest that humans begin to see that they are part of the whole, and not the whole itself.

From being in the forest human-nature interconnections develop and deepen. The teacher extends the learning by being in, doing, resting, reflecting, and questioning. Children may arrive wondering what “monsters lurk in the corners of the ponds” and depart telling you that they want to stay forever as they want to be a plant to help the forest. In a very short space of time, fears about the forest melt. Children understand the interconnections of the natural world, understand ecological issues, understand the environmental issues and problems and, most importantly, understand their role and how they can make a difference. It is not a case of waiting until I am grown up to do something. It is about right now; and, this is what I can do.

This approach works; however, the biggest challenges are adult perceptions about learning outside. Many adults perceive no learning happens outside of four walls, and in the formal school years, teachers can be told to stay inside to learn. In the before school years, adults and caregivers may feel afraid of being outside, and it is the adult fears that become the barriers. When teaching a pedagogy of place, the teacher trusts the learner as being competent and capable. The teacher is a co-learner and model with each child. If the teacher is content focused only, the human-nature interconnections is diminished as naming and labeling moves learning into the head and away from the heart and hands – the experience and connection. The program design and pedagogy slows time for the learner. Two hours is but a moment (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7

Bunyaville Environmental Education Centre, Queensland

Vignette 3: Quirindi Preschool Kindergarten, New South Wales Director Alison Thompson

Quirindi Preschool Kindergarten is a rural community-based not-for-profit preschool with a commitment to EfS, community connections, arts in nature, and bush programs. Our learning framework values play-based learning, sensory integration, and learning-style groups organized around how each child learns. When considering these groups, educators observe children at play and reflect on how much space each child needs and how actively engaged they need to be to learn. Each educator’s intentional teaching practices scaffold children’s learning to promote an inclusive learning environment where each child’s play skills and communication are extended. Our pedagogy includes a commitment to indoor/outdoor learning where the spaces invite the groups to move through the preschool environment designed to absorb the activity of the children.

Our preschool has also made a commitment to being active within the community to make the children’s learning visible with the aim of strengthening community connections. Together educators, children, and their families are developing a growing awareness of our community, the community in which we live, and seeing our community landscape as being our broader family. Our definition of community landscape is what makes up our community the bush, the urban, and the social; collectively this is our natural environment. Thus, we are exploring the notion that a natural environment is not only related to our bushland program but makes up our community, for example, farming, transport, employment, buildings, bushland, community groups, businesses, and government initiatives at a local, state, and federal level. Also, using different art forms, for example, ephemeral nature-based art incorporating all our sensors, promotes children’s sharing of their stories while looking beyond the surface of the community landscape. Our “Collaborations with Children” 2015 and 2016 project with artist Shona Wilson was successful in holistically promoting children’s senses and stronger dispositions for learning, critical thinking, while also building the foundations for environmentally engaged adults.

Our service philosophy is our recipe. A traditional recipe offers a strong foundation of ingredients and methods but also strength for change. Our recipe ingredients are educators who value children’s ability to play plus their wonder and curiosity, take time to listen and value children’s perspectives, and also value families’ traditions and community connections. Blended together, these are the basis for challenging and promoting educational change.

Further, collaboration between educators, children, and families promotes educators’ strengths to step outside our space and to view the world beyond what we see on top but to look beneath and above. The aim is to view our learning community and our broader local community as all part of a community ecosystem, and each one of these parts is interconnected. Our small community is also part of a larger global community. If you take away one part of the many parts of the world that interconnect, there is a chance it will perish. We need to explore, imagine, reflect, and evaluate with separate views, but if EfS is to be strong, we need to bring these views together to merge as a community of thinkers striving for the connections between EfS and larger social change.

We draw on pedagogical sources (Carter & Curtis, 2008; Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1998) that promote connectedness to community and a belief that educators are in a strong position to foster relationships with children, families, and people of our community, urban, commercial, and natural worlds. Educators are in a strong position through positive engagement and listening to children. They are able to understand individual children and feel empowered to challenge children and themselves with provocations. Provoking conversations encourages shared thoughts, questioning, and interests that can strengthen our thinking, creativity, and ideas, so that together we strive to see the interconnections between education and larger social change. Teaching intentionally from observing and actively being with children and collaboratively with community, thus, give our teaching energy to learn together and to want to learn more. To critically engage with children around EfS, educators need to use their imagination, act with ethical ingredients and challenge themselves to step outside their spaces, just as we ask the children to challenge and extend their thinking.

First and foremost, we are a community preschool which is strongly reflected in our philosophy and practices and links our preschool to the Bronfenbrenner model. The community system connections flow through our work and support children to understand what makes up their unique community landscape. Our educational team is learning that EfS is a growing journey for children, families, and educators. Services whose early childhood settings are situated in the city, on top of buildings, or in metropolitan areas have to create their own journeys in EfS. Our educational team feel strongly that if you value community and explore and document your community, you will find there are many possibilities to share the exciting, challenging, and risk taking journey of “EfS” (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8

Quirindi Preschool Kindergarten, NSW

Our Analysis Linking Practice to Our Reconceptualized Bronfenbrenner Model

In the table below, we offer our analysis of these three vignettes of contemporary early childhood educational practice using the theoretical frames outlined earlier that take us beyond the anthropocentrism inherent in Bronfenbrenner’s models (1979, 2001) of human development.

Conclusion: Rethinking the Theoretical Tenets in Early Childhood Education

Peter McLaren, one of the architects of critical theory and critical pedagogy, argued persuasively in 2015 about the need for a dramatic shift in how we think about education and has called for a new emphasis and shift from pedagogy to ecopedagogy (p. 307). He commented that, while progressive education’s emphasis on identity politics as a solution to creating a more vibrant, inclusive, and critical public sphere has met with some success, “issues of environmental sustainability [have] maintained but a lifeless presence, including within critical pedagogy” (McLaren, 2015, p. 308). He suggests that now is the time – emboldened by the activities of various global social movements and motivated by deepening planetary crises – when critical ecopedagogies have “arrived” and can offer powerful arguments for how to respond to the Anthropocene crisis. Further, he argues for a “revolutionary critical ecopedagogy” as a reconfiguring force. Drawing on its Marxian roots, this has the potential to re-center on essentials, suggesting a reining in of unsustainable, exploitative practices with a shift away from materialism to the expression of natural and acquired talents and the promise of improved ecological stewardship.

Further, McLaren (2015, p. 316) reemphasizes the necessity for linking ecopedagogy with praxis, but not any kind of praxis. Drawing on the liberatory tenets of Freire, this should be praxis that is philosophically founded in ethics and recognizes the languages and discourses of the oppressed and marginalized. He recognizes that ecopedagogy must join up with existing decolonizing struggles of all kinds as natural allies in the battles against unsustainable world capitalism.

Drawing on McLaren’s views, we argue that a radical ecopedagogy must inform, and reshape, early childhood education as much as education generally. Moss and Petrie (2002, p. 136) would agree; pedagogy cannot be neutral; it is “a political and ethical minefield in which choices are to be made.” One way to move to a transformative pedagogical stance is to continue shifting the theoretical underpinnings of early childhood education – of which Bronfenbrenner himself was once a revolutionary pioneer – toward critical ecopedagogies for early childhood education. We further argue that the vignettes presented in this chapter offer ways that such critical ecopedagogies might be enacted. As Mackenzie and Bieler (2016) emphasize, operationalizing critical education approaches must go “beyond critique and deconstruction to encompass the production and practice of alternatives” (p. 6).

In this chapter, we have presented arguments for rethinking the theories and models of Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1999, 2001), who for the last 40 years or so has been a key figure in directing how the early childhood education field thinks about children’s development and well-being and how this is enacted in practice. We have offered critiques based on the changing times and pressing issues of the twenty-first century with particular reference to sustainability in the Anthropocene. We have proposed new ways of representing/updating Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) work and have presented vignettes where educators are exploring ecopedagogical approaches that go beyond the anthropocentrism of Bronfenbrenner’s theorizing (1979). We do not pretend to be putting forward a replacement of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) theories/models, though in the future there may well be models that have not yet been thought of and that better fit contemporary circumstances. What we hope to do, though, is instigate a conversation about Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) work and its dominance within early childhood education. Therefore, we invite others to critique his theories and models, and our ideas as presented in this chapter, and to propose new and/or better ways of reconstructing early childhood education, childhood, environment, and childhoodnature, for a flourishing twenty-first century.



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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  2. 2.Queensland University of TechnologyBrisbaneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Marianne Logan
    • 1
  • Helen Widdop Quinton
    • 2
  1. 1.Southern Cross UniversityLismoreAustralia
  2. 2.Victoria UniversityMelbourneAustralia

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