Fulfilling human needs

Teachers’ notes - getting a handle on needs.

Needs and wants
What is a real need? When a small child says “I need an ice cream!” shortly after a good meal, this probably expresses a want. The parent might reply, “You don’t need one now!”. If someone is seriously thirsty and says “I need some water!”, this is a need. I might want to go home (I’m tired) yet tell myself I need to finish a bit of work first if I am not to let someone else down. As I want not to let this person down more than I want to go home, I stay at work. But sometimes the distinction is not so clear …

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
Maslow identified different types of needs. At the lowest level we all need food, water, warmth and fresh air, simply to survive. At the next level we need safety, then (if we are to develop physically) exercise and a healthy diet. These could all be called physical needs. After this come the psychological needs - the need to be loved or to belong, to be stimulated, to have opportunities for recreation. People who have all these needs met (to a greater or lesser extent) will then go on to seek status or recognition, and finally self-realisation. These are summarised in the table below. Maslow argued that the lower order needs must be met before people can consider the higher order ones. But he emphasises that the higher order needs are still real human needs.

Hierarchy of needs (based on Maslow)
Level Type of need
(after Maslow)
Broader classification Consequences of these needs being met How determined
6 Self-realisation, self-actualisation Psychological needs must be met for intellectual, social, and emotional development Feeling good about oneself Culturally determined - needs manifested in different ways in different cultures
5 Recognition, status, prestige
4 Belonging - need to be needed; stimulation; recreation Healthy development Biologically determined - common to all humans
3 Exercise, healthy diet Physical needs must be met for healthy physical development
2 Safety Survival
1 Food, water, air, warmth

All products are designed to meet some sort of need. It is possible to take any product, and decide which type of need is being addressed when someone uses that product. Consider a loaf of bread, reservoir, bandage, builder’s ‘hard-hat’ helmet, bicycle, CD, perfume (or deodorant), holiday, fashionable designer clothes, sports car, a painting or musical instrument. It is useful to get students to think about the needs behind any product, remembering that many products are designed to meet needs at a number of levels - a pen and paper can be used for writing poetry, a love letter or a safety warning. Equally the same product can meet different needs in different cultural contexts: compare a gun used by a hunter to shoot animals for food, a gun used for sports, and a gun owned by a gang member to give him street credibility among his peers.

It is worth remembering also that some needs are considered pathological, such as an alcoholic’s need for a stiff drink or an autocrat’s need to boss people around and make them feel small, in order to give himself or herself a sense of self-importance.

Linking this to sustainability
One definition of sustainable development is that it meets the needs of people today without limiting the opportunities of future generations to meet their needs. I might use a car to get to work or the shops, helping me to earn money, buy food and therefore meet some basic needs. But at the same time I am limiting the choices of people in the future by using a finite resource and contributing to air pollution, global warming and climate change. Conversely, buying an organic, fair traded product might positively contribute to the long-term sustainability of a rural community in a southern country.


To help students to think about human needs and how they are fulfilled, relating this to sustainable development.

It can be used with both AS and A2 level students

Likely to be most useful when students are dealing with sustainability for the first time at AS or A2. It’s intended to make them think as ordinary consumers, not as designers.

It can be used with a small group or a whole class.

The activity can be tailored to meet your own requirements at the time that you use it. You can use all or a selection of the needs suggested. Teachers can reword these as needed - those given are suggestions only.

As a starter activity, this may not be anything more than something that sows seeds but students should become more aware of themselves as consumers whose decisions impact on lives and livelihoods elsewhere and in the future as a result of completing the activity.

• Preparation - read the teachers’ notes above

Part 1
• Select all or a number of needs (for suggestions see below) in advance. Print them in bold, large print on cards enough for one set of needs for each group (groups should be maximum of 6 students)
• Give each group a set of needs cards.
• Ask each group to lay the cards down in front of them so they can read the needs.
• Each student in the group should pick a context or activity from their home or school life (e.g. playing computer games, going out with friends.)
• Ask each student to select four of the needs that are met by the activity they have chosen, and list them in order of importance to themselves.
• Each student should then describe to the group why these needs are fulfilled through their chosen activity.
• When all students in the group have done this each group should discuss whether there are other needs they would rather see fulfilled and what it would take in order to satisfy them.
• Then ask each group what needs they were fulfilling and what others they would prefer to be fulfilled.
• The teacher should then try to draw conclusions about the types of needs that current ways of living are not satisfying. You might find that Maslow’s approach provides a clear conceptual framework for this.

Suggested Needs for Part I











Part 2
• Hand out the chart showing the hierarchy of needs (see Teachers’ Notes). Talk through the basic ideas with the whole class.
• Produce a variety of products from a bag and distribute them between the groups (you can use the list of products in the Teachers’ Notes above for ideas).
• Ask each group to identify which level or levels of need from Maslow’s hierarchy each product is addressing.
• Then ask each group how the product might enhance or limit the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.
• Each group then reports back to the whole class.
• Draw out the sustainability issues, highlighting if possible economic, social and environmental dimensions.

What is sustainability?
Fulfilling human needs - teachers’ notes
Activity: Fulfilling human needs
More sustainable companies
Activity: Life cycle analysis