Children learn critical thinking through discussion

Children shall learn to look after themselves, each other and nature. How can kindergartens give children an early understanding of sustainable development?


Photo: Jannecke Sanne Normann


The Norwegian Framework Plan for Kindergartens sets out a goal stating that in both word and deed, staff shall promote an understanding of sustainable development.

Sweden also aspires for children to gain knowledge and insight into what sustainable development means. How can that be accomplished? The Swedish researcher Maria Hedefalk was curious about precisely that when she started writing her doctoral thesis.


One traditional way of approaching sustainable development is to teach children facts about nature and natural phenomena. This allows a focus on objective facts and on encouraging children to do what is “right”.

However, Hedefalk finds that going for nature walks or reading books about the environment are not enough to give children a genuine understanding of sustainable development.

How do ECE (early childhood education) centres convey knowledge about sustainable development, and what methods do they employ? Hedefalk wondered about this when she visited kindergartens, armed with a camcorder to observe staff and children alike.


‘As members of the human race, we must make assessments and form opinions in order to act for a more sustainable world. Consequently, it is imperative that we teach children critical discussion’, contends the researcher.

‘This makes it important for early childhood educators to pave the way for children to learn critical thinking.’

The researcher was surprised to find the topic of sustainability conspicuously absent from discussions in the kindergartens she visited. Meanwhile, she discovered some learning situations that she believes could offer relevant avenues for developing children’s competence to act.

She gives an example:
Early childhood educator Saga asks the children how they can avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. ‘Is there something one can do?’ Young Svante says that if a mosquito lands on him, he just swats it. Kristina, another early childhood educator, adds that we can simply brush it off. ‘Yes, or swat it’, Svante repeats. Saga offered a different solution: ‘You know, when it comes to mosquitoes, they squirt poison into us when they bite, and that’s why we start to itch. I agree that we can swat them. But what about the bugs that don’t hurt us, the ones that can fly and stuff, maybe we don’t need to kill them?’ she asks. Then Kalle speaks up, using his hands to show how we can catch bugs without killing them. This fuels a discussion among the children: What should we do when we see mosquitoes or spiders? Should we kill them, or catch them, then release them?


Early childhood educators Saga and Kristina let the children know that they had differing opinions about how to deal with a mosquito. Hedefalk suggests that this is a good way to show children that people have different perspectives, and that it is okay to have differing opinions. Different solutions are possible, depending on the perspective you choose.

By allowing differing opinions to be voiced when discussing a phenomenon, the children are given a chance to develop critical competence to act. Children who experience that they have a say in matters become more enterprising adults. Accordingly, it is important that children feel they have made a difference.


Hedefalk has some concrete advice regarding learning situations that may help develop children’s competence to act:

  • It is not enough to teach children a lot of facts about environmental impact. Instead, it should be a topic for discussion. In trying to find solutions to a problem, children learn to understand the conflicts and special interests that leave their footprints on the environment.
  • It is necessary to hear several sides of a story. It is not possible to be critical if there is only one perspective to consider. If everyone agrees, there are no alternatives for comparison.
  • Kindergartens must provide an environment where children feel safe enough to dare to express divergent points of view.
  • When faced with a moral dilemma, the chances of a child recognising several different solutions increases. The next step is to make a critical assessment of the various possible solutions.