KITA21 - Excellent places of learning for sustainability

More than 200 early childhood care and education (ECCE) institutions located in Hamburg and southern Holstein display at their front doors a special sign: KITA21, marking them as part of an early childhood care and education network.

by Freya Kettner, translated by Chris Baudy

Successful network development

Having conducted a number of projects in ECCE institutions that helped early education teachers integrate sustainability issues into their work, S.O.F. Save Our Future – Umweltstiftung started KITA21 in 2008. "To us, KITA21 was the next logical step towards implementing a holistic educational approach", describes Ralf Thielebein, managing director of S.O.F., the beginnings. "From our experience, we gathered that ESD offers an excellent frame for early childhood education. In this context, the United Nations (UN) Decade of Education for Sustainable Development proved a valuable basis and provided a supporting framework." For several times, KITA21 was recognized as official German contribution to the UN Decade of ESD. In 2016, KITA21 was honoured for its high quality work on ESD by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the German Commission for UNESCO within the framework of the Global Action Programme on ESD.

Young boy doing an experiment

Deutsche UNESCO-Kommission / Till Budde

Early inclusion of partners

Including members and partners at all stages in the decision-making process is the best way to create well-functioning networks. This is quite challenging but can, at the same time, result in long-lasting and successful cooperation.

From the very start, KITA21 set out to build a well-functioning network. To achieve this sponsors and associations of ECCE institutions located in Hamburg as well as the relevant local authorities have been involved in the planning of the educational initiative. Leuphana University of Luneburg has always supported the project with their expert advice.

At the next stage, the ECCE institution sponsors und associations were regularly informed about the progress being made. Today, they are still playing an active role in the further development of the programme. The panel awarding the KITA21 certificate to ECCE institutions comprises of representatives of the responsible agencies and important educational stakeholders. In Schleswig-Holstein, an additional advisory council helps stakeholders implement ESD in their workplace. Overall, the involvement of high-level representatives ensures the network's professional reputation. In Hamburg, successful ECCE institutions receive a KITA21 certificate signed by Hamburg's Senator of Social Affairs, in Schleswig-Holstein, the Senator for the Environment and the Minister for Social Affairs both sign the document. Additionally, the president of the local parliament patronages the project's realisation in Hamburg; Schleswig-Holstein's counterpart is the Minister for Energy. In Schleswig-Holstein, two state-owned companies and one county joined forces to sponsor the implementation of KITA21.

Outside its own structures, KITA21 exchanges ideas with and looks for new supporters within topically related networks and initiatives. After all, integrating multipliers, sponsors, associations and agencies is a decisive factor for success and indispensable for the integration of ESD in present educational structures.

It is still a difficult task to impart the objectives, contents and complexity of the concept behind ESD. "Without close cooperation and agreement both the initial support of and openness towards KITA21 will fade over the course of time. In the end, ECCE institutions face quite a number of challenges", says Thielebein in response to the question of what hampers successful networking.

ESD as a process

Without exception, KITA21 has an easy start in ECCE institutions. During a three-day workshop, the institutions deal with the aims and contents of ESD and develop their own ESD plan. Topical workshops and network meetings allow the participants to extend their knowledge and exchange ideas. Afterwards, ECCE institutions often request individual team training sessions to orient their entire pedagogical staff towards ESD.

"This shows that the introduction of ESD in ECCE institutions is a process", states Thielebein. "Institutions that have concerned themselves with the concept of ESD and incorporated it into their educational activities soon discover how much ESD improves their work. Generally, their orientation towards ESD increases over time. Similarly, sustainable catering and procurement are getting growing attention, too."

Thus, KITA21 has proved itself a highly successful concept in Hamburg and neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein. The participating ECCE institutions make continual progress. "And yet, getting new institutions to participate in further training measures and the realisation of ESD remains quite a challenge", summarises Thielebein the problems of extending the programme. He believes that ECCE institutions still view ESD as an additional task and not as an educational alternative.

Future-fit early childhood care and education institutions

KITA21 trainings are important measures to promote ESD in early childhood education. Whether or not the workshops had been successful is evaluated with the help of questionnaires, the results of which enter directly into the design of new training courses. The number of people that could be reached shows during the awarding process. The applicants state, for instance, the number of pedagogical staff that joined in the educational activity or how many children took part in it. Another interesting point is which of the measures succeed in sustainable catering and procurement. The results are used to identify educational measures suitable for the pedagogues' future work.

Successful project work and networking thrives on continual development and realignment. Presently, the KITA21 training concepts and materials are being overhauled to see, how KITA21 can link up with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how aspects of the goals can be included in its design.

Nevertheless, there are other ideas to convince ECCE institutions to include ESD in their pedagogical strife, says S.O.F.'s managing director Thielebein: "In a first step, we want to highlight future-fit institutions because they stand out from the crowd. To make this work, we will collaborate even closer with sponsors, associations and local authorities." Another vital step will be the cooperation with technical colleges. Then, future educators will encounter ESD during their vocational training and readily perceive it as a beneficial aspect rather than a burden of their professional endeavour.

"At a very young age, children develop a strong sense of fairness and responsibility. They come up with wonderful ideas for sustainable action when they concern themselves with topics such as waste, energy, food or shopping in an exploratory and playful way, and when their voices are heard", explains Thielebein. Let's use this potential.

by Freya Kettner, translated by Chris Baudy


  • Including multipliers and partners in important decisions
  • Keeping up the initial support and openness towards KITA21 despite the various requirements ECCE institutions must meet
  • Extending the network and convincing more ECCE institutions to participate and implement the ESD concept
  • Perceiving ESD not as an additional burden but as a chance to develop educational work further

Conditions for success

  • Including sponsors, associations and relevant authorities as well as Leuphana University of Luneburg in the planning and further development of KITA21
  • Training and networking opportunities for pedagogues as the most important tool to promote ESD in ECCE institutions
  • Exchange with other networks and initiatives
  • Continued development and realignment of supportive measures as well as the continual expansion of the network

Contact details

S.O.S. Save Our Future

Friesenweg 1
22763 Hamburg
T +49 40 240600

Further Informations


Kita21 (German)