The authors report on a case study to illustrate their notion of curriculum making as a ‘vortex’. As teacher educators they proposed a process planning model for environmental challenge scenarios, and equipped student primary teachers to employ eco-playful pedagogies in meaningful curriculum opportunities. The student teachers positioned primary children as powerful problem solvers who could readily take an active role in supporting local communities during an extreme weather scenario. Small-world play resources channelled the children’s natural curiosity, engaged them in place-making activities and invited them to participate in a collaborative enquiry as they rehearsed environmental change events and developed critical thinking. The children devised safe rehearsals of potentially serious real world events. The findings suggest that a range of carefully planned activities can foster the knowledge, skills and values of a curriculum with sustainable development at its heart, and encourage children to take a proactive response to environmental challenge. The authors conclude that such an approach helps student teachers and children to envision and shape a more sustainable future as young citizens who are capable of taking solution focussed roles.