Species Learning and Biodiversity in Early Childhood Teacher Education

The research cooperation on sustainability and science in teacher education between the University of Stavanger and the University of Helsinki (see earlier blog text about this cooperation) has now resulted in a second joint article on early childhood teacher education. Based on Tuula Skarstein’s good experience from Norway, we decided to also include species learning on a course in Helsinki. The article shows the results from this course.

The species exam was very hard for me because I had not used species knowledge much since the time I was forced to learn species in elementary school. Despite this, I already notice that I observe my surroundings in a different way than I have done before, and I must honestly say that it feels good. (One of the students)



To understand biodiversity, it is crucial to have knowledge of different species and their life conditions. Biodiversity learning for children starts with observing plants and animals in the neighbourhood. Therefore, it is important that early childhood (EC) teachers know the local nature. There are few studies on species knowledge among EC student teachers but results from a Norwegian study show that although EC student teachers had poor species knowledge when entering university, their knowledge increased remarkably during their studies. Based on these results, the current study investigates the implementation of species learning in an EC teacher education course in Finland. Our aim was to study the student teachers’ species identification skills, their views on the importance of species knowledge, and their experiences of species learning. The study used a mixed-methods approach and included species identification tests, a questionnaire, learning diaries, and focus group interviews. The results show that the student teachers were eager to learn about species. They found species learning important both for EC teachers and for sustainability, and they appreciated learning about species in a broad sense, from personal, educational, and social perspectives. Our conclusion is that implementing species knowledge in EC teacher education promotes an interest in the natural world and may form a significant contribution to nature and sustainability education for EC teachers.


The Challenge of Early Childhood Education in the Anthropocene

Lili-Ann Wolff’s, Tuula Skarstein’s and Frode Skarstein’s cooperation (see earlier blog) has resulted in three articles this far. The first article on early childhood education is available on open access:


During the last century, the human way of life has begun to transgress many of the Earth’s biophysical boundaries in an alarming way. The consequences of this are more dramatic and long lasting than ever before. Many researchers even argue that humanity has created a new geological epoch, which they call Anthropocene. Education, even in early childhood (EC), is often presented as a remedy for these complex problems. Yet, how can anyone prepare young children to deal with such tremendous changes? The primary aim of our study is to define and outline what the mission of early childhood education (ECE) might be in the epoch of the Anthropocene. Through a comprehensive review of the literature, we have tried to find answers about how the Anthropocene could be addressed in ECE. We have searched for answers in the natural science literature, policy documents, educational research articles and philosophy, and discuss the various standpoints we have identified. We argue that the Anthropocene demands a new, more authentic education; a change towards a more holistic, transformative, sustainability-oriented approach. At the same time, children, as always, have a right to a safe, positive and encouraging childhood.


Cooperation and joint exploration

The most fruitful research and development takes place in collaboration. New ideas do not only emerge from individual thinking, but also from hours of deep discussions. SUSTE is a terrific example on this. However, in this blog contribution I will not tell about Ann-Christin’s, Hannah’s and my common undertakings, but about another collaboration, which is also related to SUSTE in many ways.

All the spring semester this year, I was lucky to host two Norwegian research colleagues, Tuula Skarstein and Frode Skarstein, both from Stavanger University. They were my guests at the University of Helsinki. In the previous autumn I spent a week at their university, and visited Norwegian preschools in company with Tuula. Already then we three devoted many hours discussing our common research interest.

Common interest in science education

All three of us are lecturers in science education, and the target is both early childhood student teachers and student teachers on higher educational levels. However, the research we developed together in Finland focused especially on two topics: early childhood education in the Anthropocene and species training among early childhood student teachers. I will tell more about the Anthropocene research in another blog text about the ECER conference, and below concentrate on species training and other collaborative interests.

Tuula and Frode already had developed and studied training in species knowledge among Norwegian students, now we wanted to explore together how willing the early childhood teacher students in Helsinki would be to learn species. Since the students that we studied were very positive to the whole idea, we gave it a try and I included species knowledge in my course by help of Tuula. Afterwards, we studied through multiple methods how the students had experienced the learning. Finally, we combined our studies in Finland and Norway to receive a most realistic picture of if it was any idea to train early childhood teacher students to recognize and know species. We presented this study in EECERA (see the previous blog by Ann-Christin) in Thessaloniki and the audience raised many questions and was eager about our findings. This autumn we are completing an article for the journal Sustainability, where we will tell more about the results.

Sustainability education and biodiversity

During Tuula’s and Frode’s stay in Finland, we also organized a seminar for Finnish and Norwegian teacher educators about sustainability in teacher education. The first day was located at the Siltavuorenpenger campus with various interesting presentations on the topic by researchers from both Finland and Norway. The second day the participants visited the preschool Kippari in Espoo. The host for this visit was the preschool teacher Outi Aarnisalo. This was a strategic choice, because Kippari has a strong environmental and sustainability profile, and Outi has been one of the promoters for years.

My collabaroation with Outi Aarninsalo started in 1995 in the framework of the Nature House Villa Elfvik’s biodiversity project Lumoaako lumo. This project included 10 schools and 18 preschools in Espoo, among them Kippari.  Later in 1999 our collaboration continued in a second Espoo project, KOVA (comprehensive teacher training in environmental education) with 23 preschools as participants. This second project was initiated by a handful preschool teachers in Espoo. The history shows that environmental education and sustainability in early childhood education has a long history in Espoo. When I initiated the LUMO project I was surprised and happy that so many preschools directly showed an interest in the topic biodiversity.  One of Tuula’s, Froode’s and my attempts in our present research is to offer species knowledge a role in early childhood teacher education. An important goal with that is to increase the understanding of how humans depend on biodiversity and need to prevent its loss.

Education in practice

The researcher guests also took part in practical education. Frode held a lecture on digital tools for my Finnish colleagues. Tuula was a co-teacher on a few of my lectures and also participated as a teacher in our field studies and visits, for example to the Ympäristökoulu Polku (environmental school) owned by Kierrätyskeskus’ (Reuse Centre) and to the Nature House Villa Elfvik in Espoo. Together with Tuula we led a whole field study day at Villa Elfvik starting in the early morning with bird watching. The planning officer Katri Luukkonen presented the Nature House’s learning programs for early childhood groups. Ann-Christin (from SUSTE) took part as an observer this day.

Our students were enthusiastic about how much this day offered of experiences on how to engage children in nature activities. This day it also became obvious for them how fun it is to know species, because they obviously recognized so much more when they were outdoors than before the training.

Frode and I also had a possibility to visit Harakka Nature Centre on an island close to Helsinki. We had good guiding from the chemistry teacher Asta Ekman. Both in the many interesting buildings and by a walk around the island, we received an exciting picture of the nature school education on Harakka.

This was a few examples on how we spent the spring semester together in a Finnish/Norwegian collaboration. Tuula and Frode also participated in meetings with SUSTE’s support group and other activities at the faculty, like research events and conferences. Not to forget that Tuula, Frode and I spent man interesting moments discussing post humanism in relation to early childhood education. In sum it was a fine beginning of our joint research, and I am grateful to the time we could spend together in Helsinki.  Thanks Tuula and Frode!

The persons behind SUSTE

The SUSTE research team includes the following lecturers at the University of Helsinki:

  • Senior university lecturer Ann-Christin Furu (project leader)


  • Associate professor Hannah Kaihovirta


  • Associate professor Lili-Ann Wolff



SUSTE is also backed up by a reference group including:

  • Associate professor emerita Ingrid Engdahl from Stockholm University
  • Professor Tarja Karlsson Häikiö from University of Gothenburg,
  • Associate professor Mari-Ann Letnes from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

Welcome to the SUSTE blog! This first blog post shortly describes what SUSTE actually is

Researchers at the University of Helsinki develop sustainability learning for Early Childhood Education and Care


Sustainability has become a must in all education aiming at all age groups. However, most research focuses on sustainability education in schools. Especially in Finland, there is nearly no research in the field of sustainability in Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). To fill this gap we, three researchers and teacher educators at the Faculty of Education at the University of Helsinki, decided to create the project SUSTE (Sustainable Stories in Early Childhood Education and Care). The focus of SUSTE is particularly sustainability in Finnish ECEC.

In Finland, there is nearly no research in the field of sustainability in ECEC. SUSTE strives to fill this gap.

The SUSTE project is not only a research project, but it is simultaneously an intervention project that strives to promote change in the learning environments and routines of ECEC settings, like nurseries and preschools.  Since the project team includes three university lecturers/researchers specialized in different teaching training topics, the project is also interdisciplinary in nature. Our expertize fields are a combination of language, narrative, aesthetics, science and philosophy. We employ all these fields jointly with sustainability as the foundation. Thus, we try to reach beyond the limits of the different topics and create a transdisciplinary understanding of sustainability education and learning.

The SUSTE project aims at professional development of sustainability competences among student teachers and staff in day care and pre-primary settings. A primary interest is to explore how sustainability competencies can be developed through multimodal storytelling in the context of ECEC. Hence, the focus of research is the mutual learning processes of the participating practitioners, student teachers, and researchers.

SUSTE has a primary interest in exploring how sustainability competencies can be developed through multimodal storytelling in the context of ECEC.

The project consists of three main parts. Firstly, we study how sustainability is currently envisioned and enacted in Finnish ECEC. Secondly, we arrange research circles, tutoring, workshops, and seminars for practitioners and student teachers. Thirdly, we empirically explore the learning processes during this complex professional development process.

The expected outcome of the project is of a two-fold nature. Firstly, it prompts the development of new sustainability theories and practices. Secondly, it enhances dialogues about sustainability education and learning between students, researchers and practitioners. Some student teachers in ECEC, for example, participate in the project by writing bachelor and master theses with sustainability education topics.

In this blog various people engaged in the SUSTE project communicate what is going on in the project and share the ups and downs that might occur during the joint learning processes in both words and pictures.  The blog is an open way to share experiences and actively create sustainability education in ECC. Therefore, by following this blog you receive insight to the progress of the SUSTE project. So, stay alert!

Christin, Lily & Hannah, March 6, 2019