Education for sustainability – heart, head, hands - Education Matters Magazine

Education for sustainability – heart, head, hands

Education for sustainability encompasses a vision for society that is not only ecologically sustainable but one which is socially, economically and politically sustainable as well, writes Kirsty Costa.

Looking at the site of CERES today you’d never believe that it was once a bluestone quarry that was turned into rubbish tip and then into a vibrant community environment park. This expansive 4.5 hectare space is nestled next to the Merri Creek in Brunswick East, seven kilometres north of Melbourne’s CBD. Housed on the site is a large, award-winning, not-for-profit, community organisation that provides an extraordinary array of experiences, education programs and social enterprises. CERES inspires over 350,000 local, interstate and international visitors each year. Entry is free 365 days a year and people are encouraged to explore the local and community projects, gardens and food systems, ecosystems, water trails, venue hire spaces, café, nursery, market and grocery.

From its inception over 30 years ago, CERES has focused on providing education opportunities for people of all ages and abilities. Through its programs, CERES provides learning experiences that explore Sustainability, Food, Biodiversity, Energy, Waste, Water, Traditional and Contemporary Cultures, Social Justice, Leadership, Behaviour Change and Community Engagement. Excursions and incursions are provided to school and tertiary students, including programs focused on sustainability and cultural education. Over 300 schools are being mentored by CERES to develop sustainability projects through ResourceSmart Schools. Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs support youth and young adults. We host a range of volunteer groups including those with intellectual disabilities. CERES also provides a range of short courses, workshops and training programs for adults of all ages from bread making to bee-keeping.

CERES has learnt a lot about Education for Sustainability over the course of three decades. Education for Sustainability transforms goals for conservation, social justice, appropriate development and democracy into a vision and a mission of personal and social change. It seeks to develop the kinds of civic virtues and skills that can empower all citizens and, through them our social institutions, to play leading roles in the transition to sustainability. As such, education for sustainability encompasses a vision for society that is not only ecologically sustainable but one which is socially, economically and politically sustainable as well.

Deeply embedded in CERES’ approach to experiential education is the framework for Education for Sustainability – education in the environment (heart), about the environment (head) and for the environment (hands). This straight-forward way of structuring teaching and learning about sustainability can be used by early childhood, schools, tertiary institutions and anyone considering undertaking a community project. We’ve introduced the framework of ‘heart, head, hands’ to hundreds of teachers and their feedback indicates that it is a holistic approach to creating engaging and effective Education for Sustainability experiences.

Here is a brief outline of each element of Education for Sustainability for you to consider when undertaking a project or campaign at your home, organisation, school or community.

HEART – education in the environment

Think of your favourite childhood memory. Most likely it was outside playing with friends and family, exploring your garden, being on a holiday, playing in school grounds, going on camp etc. Within one generation, however, there has been a dramatic shift in childhood activity in Australia from outdoor play to indoor activity. As part of National Tree Day, Planet Ark has commissioned a string of independent research about young people’s relationship to the natural environment, the time they spend outside and how this affects their personal development. Planet Ark found that the amount of increased screen time, ‘stranger danger’ and safety concerns, smaller backyards, family structures and changing community landscapes have reduced the amount of time young people spend outside.

This is a concerning trend as there is an emerging body of hard evidence that links childhood contact with nature with a range of health and wellbeing benefits1, including:

  • Positive mental health outcomes – reduced stress levels and depression as well as increased confidence and self-esteem;
  • Physical health benefits – reduced risks of obesity and myopia, and improved recovery from certain medical conditions; and,
  • Enhanced intellectual development – improved creativity and imagination, and improved academic performance.

David Attenborough recently tweeted, “People must feel that the natural world is important and valuable and beautiful and wonderful and an amazement and a pleasure”2. Education in the environment helps people emotionally connect to nature and appreciate its value, beyond its economic worth. We have found that if someone doesn’t emotionally value the beauty of trees, they are less likely to care about using and recycling paper. If someone doesn’t emotionally engage with their local waterways, they are less likely to care about littering. Without an emotional connection, it is much more difficult to engage anyone in sustainability projects or campaigns. CERES encourages an emotional connection in many ways including maintaining a beautiful space, providing hands-on learning for students and adults that help them physically connect in way that still feels safe (germs seem to have become a concern for many people). Schools are supported to get their students outside and ‘plugged in’ to nature, even if it’s sitting under a tree while reading a book about trees. CERES also helps people understand that we (humans) are part of nature – we exist as an animal in an ecosystem and wouldn’t survive without shelter, safe drinking water, food and clear air.

Education in the environment can also motivate learning and inspire new ideas. This is the case with children as well as adults. The overwhelming feedback from a CERES short course was that participants valued a, “natural environment to learn new things.”

HEAD – education about the environment

Education about the environment is the facts and information that we teach our children and students and share with our community. Information and facts can engage people in an issue and help them understand the reason behind an environmental project or program. Facts can be a catalyst for someone to consider their impact on the natural environment. Recently, a group of students explored their ecological footprint at CERES. Through the footprint survey and class discussions, the teacher commented that, “We were able to evaluate how our daily habits contribute to global warming. We later exchanged ideas about modifying our lifestyles, so that we can reduce our impact on the natural environment.” And this from a student who participated in an Australia 2030 school incursion, “It’s really important to use the resources wisely now, then see a bad future.”

This concept of a ‘bad future’ is not uncommon amongst young people. They are growing up in an information rich society – at a click of a button we can research anything we like. This means, however, that young people are also exposed to negative stories and strongly conflicting opinions about the state of the environment and the future of our planet. For this reason, sustainability education faces a challenge of keeping young people optimistic about the future. Too much information can overwhelm. When someone is overwhelmed, they can start to disengage and this can lead to despair and apathy (“the issue is so big that what I do won’t make an impact”). Education about the environment has its place as part of the framework for Education for Sustainability, but we need to be careful that we don’t spend our teaching and learning time solely on information and facts.

HANDS – education for the environment

Education for the environment is about taking action and behaviour change. If relied upon alone, however, it can be challenging to encourage people take action without an emotional connection (heart) and understanding of facts (head).

CERES encourages the people it connects with to consider three key aspects of citizenship:

  • Global Citizen – a sense of belonging to and responsibility within local, national and global communities;
  • Biosphere Custodian – a sense of stewardship of the natural environment; and,
  • Change Agent – the capacity and motivation to act as an agent of change towards sustainability.

CERES encourages young people to find which types of citizenship resonates most with them. There is a particular focus on skilling up young people are to become change agents. CERES’ successful program called Do More with LESS (Leaders in Environmentally Sustainable Schools) is evidence of the need to support students to understand their leadership potential and carry out effective and meaningful projects in their community. There is an emphasis on creativity, innovation and using simple behavioural psychology to create change. Every day we hear amazing stories of young people creating change in their community through projects and campaigns. Schools share some of these stories on the Sustainability Hub website under the ‘Member Blogs’ menu – there is no need to reinvent the wheel when you can learn from others. Sometimes we hear people say, “Teaching about sustainability in schools is important as young people are the leaders of our future.” CERES believes that young people are already the leaders in our community and many of them are doing much more to help the natural environment than their older counterparts.


You’ve heard it all before but it’s true that unless we properly start reducing climate change, our overuse of natural resources and our impact on the natural environment we are really putting ourselves and our planet in a compromised position. We face, however, a ‘sustainability fatigue’ that is permeating our society due to a lack of connection with nature, an abundance of overwhelming information and a confusion about where to start making changes. Education for Sustainability helps to overcome this and is vital to change in our society. The best news is that it’s not rocket science when you use a framework like ‘heart, head, hands’ that balances the different ways that people engage with sustainability.

CERES is a model for a future with sustainability, innovation and connectedness at its heart. People are encouraged to tap into their passions, start small and then expand into a larger comfort zone in order to help create a sustainable future for all. Drop in next time you’re in Melbourne as you never know what you will find on our rambling paths.


1. Planet Ark (2012), ‘Planting Trees: Just What The Doctor Ordered’,

2. David Attenborough, Twitter,

Connecting with CERES

CERES Education website –

CERES Facebook page –

CERES Education Facebook –

CERES Twitter – @ceresbrunswick

CERES Education Twitter – @CERESeducation

Kirsty Costa Twitter – @kirsty_costa

Kirsty Costa is the Group Manager of CERES Education and lives in her element combining her two passions – education and sustainability. Kirsty has over 15 years of experience working in the sustainability sector, including helping Greenpeace with their whaling campaign in Japan and Oxfam with their eco-forestry projects. She also enjoyed five years as a classroom teacher before starting her work with CERES. Kirsty specialises in behaviour change programs and loves to blend sustainability with pop culture. Her presentation ‘What Sustainability Can Learn from Footy’ has been well received by audiences across Australia. Kirsty’s work as a consultant, coordinator of networks, supporter of international projects and mentor for other environmental educators led to her being awarded the Victorian Environmental and Sustainability Educator of the Year 2013. She also recently completed her training with Al Gore to become a Climate Reality Leader. Kirsty supports communities through positive partnerships and meaningful on-the-ground action.

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