EDUCATION: Nature’s classroom

07 April 2017
Reading time6 minutes

The rise of outdoor-based education

“If Sunshine Coast residents are not out there, getting to know their land and developing a relationship with it, then they won’t love it and they won’t steward it and the scale and pace of change—and the environmental impact of that—was, and continues to be, concerning to me.”

This was the impetus needed for Carly Garner to establish Natureweavers, a forest school in Cooroy. At Natureweavers they do things a little differently. Gone are the confines of a traditional classroom and the schedules that often shape its students’ day. “There is a gentle rhythm that guides the day, but the content is emergent, child-led, place-based and seasonal,” Carly, Natureweavers director and teacher, explains. “What this means in practice is that within the rhythm of the day, the ‘content’ is directed by the children’s interests, with nature providing the context for the play and thus the learning.”

The forest school caters for children aged 2 to 16 and it currently has 50 children enrolled in the bush kinder, and a further 50 to 60 children regularly attend Natureweavers seasonal, holiday and bushcraft programs. It is one of a rising number of forest, or bush, schools in Australia. Carly says, “A typical day is muddy, soggy, crunchy, splashy, shady, sunny, slippery, gooey, scratchy, roly-poly and noisy, punctuated with moments of gentle care of tiny creatures, intense listening of birdsong, quiet focus of risky play, the beautiful hum of ephemeral art, and intentional reflections over a shared lunch. Our typical day is what childhood should be.” Carly started Natureweavers in 2010 shortly after moving to the Sunshine Coast from Victoria. Carly and her young family were drawn here partly because of the diversity of wild spaces in the region, and the climate that allows access to them regularly. But, she noticed that people did not seem to be out enjoying those wild spaces. “Sure, there are people on the beaches, but where are the people in the hinterland, the national parks, the semi-urban parklands, the riversides, the local creeks, the lesser-used tracks?

Carly started Natureweavers in 2010 shortly after moving to the Sunshine Coast from Victoria. Carly and her young family were drawn here partly because of the diversity of wild spaces in the region, and the climate that allows access to them regularly. But, she noticed that people did not seem to be out enjoying those wild spaces. “Sure, there are people on the beaches, but where are the people in the hinterland, the national parks, the semi-urban parklands, the riversides, the local creeks, the lesser-used tracks? 

“I’ve got a background in environmental advocacy and have spent much of my career attempting to change the behaviour of adults to orient them towards more environmentally sustainable ways of living, learning and working. Research indicates that this kind of environmental stewardship behaviour is largely about relationships—with earth, and specifically, your local landscape.” 

She explains how forest schools inspire this kind of environmental stewardship in children and apply it through the lens of early childhood education. “And,” she adds, “It’s fun—much more fun than sitting in a pre-school room, looking out the window, waiting for outside playtime.”

With this outdoor nature play comes another benefit—an improvement in the health of our children. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, less than eight per cent of children in Australia play outside every day. Coupled with the fact that in 2014 only 41 per cent of children in Queensland aged five to 17 years had sufficient physical activity, according to the chief health officer for the state, these statistics make for grim reading.

Another such initiative is the 'Creek Kindergarten' program at the Ananda Marga River School Early Childhood Centre in Maleny. Having started in January last year, around 11 to 15 children aged over four years are enrolled in the program, which runs three days a week.

Katchia Avenell, kindergarten teacher and trained nature pedagogist, shared a typical day with us: “We gather for a snack at around 9am to bring the children together, then pack our bags, put on our boots and hats and head on down to the creek. Once at the creek, we set up our portable toilet and put out our yarning mat. We gather in our yarning circle to Acknowledge Country and pay our respects to our local nation. The children love to lead this!

“We then share our thoughts, look at the change in our environment (tree branches, water flow, etc) and discuss safety,” she adds. “Then we are off for exploration and play. We have a box of tools and another box that keeps our firewood dry in wet weather. We climb trees, jump over rock formations, swim, light fires, explore the water ways and swing from vines.”

The children also make soups or hot drinks on the camp oven and use the tools to fossick for stones, build shelters or make art. “It's incredible what the children make and find,” says Katchia. She adds that there is an extensive amount of research that highlights the benefits of outdoor play, including physical and cognitive development for children.

“Allowing the children to explore the space as they see fit allows them to develop their depth perception, muscles and whole body in preparation for writing. It is a fabulous pre-literacy skill. It allows them to work in groups and with people they normally wouldn't in a defined, routined space. Likewise, we don't have fights over toys or activities—the space is so open the children can move as they please.”

Forest schools around the world

The first ever forest school was set up in Wisconsin in 1927. Over 10% of Danish preschools are situated in a natural setting, such as a forest, and the natural world is a cornerstone of their approach to learning.
The first forest school in the UK was established in 1993 at Bridgwater College in Somerset.

And it’s not just pre-schoolers that can benefit from outdoor learning. Mandy Potter is co-owner of Starting Strong, the Gold Coast’s only all outdoor pre-school and early learning classes. As well as offering pre-school classes for three to five-year-olds, Starting Strong offers early learning classes, for children aged 15 months to three years, and infant classes for children from birth to 15 months.

“The early learning or toddlers’ classes run for around an hour. In this class the parents (or sometimes grandparents) attend with the child and learn about teaching their little ones while at home,” Mandy says. “We incorporate songs, crafts, fine motor skills and physical activity to all classes. The infant class is a shorter class (30 to 40 minutes) and focuses on baby sensory and an early love of literacy through stories and finger puppets.

“What sets us apart from other kids’ programs on the coast is not only that we are set up outdoors but also that we are structured and lead by a qualified educator with over a decade of early childhood experience,” she adds. “When trying to find a program like this two years ago for my daughter to attend, I just couldn't believe that there wasn't one in such a city with a large family orientated population.”

They also run 'Forest school Fridays' for their pre-schoolers, where they explore a different new natural play space each week. “These sessions, although very popular in Canada and Europe, are only just starting to get popular in Australia,” Mandy says.

So could this type of learning ever filter down to traditional schools? “Yes,” says Carly. “Indeed it does already. There are primary schools in Australia and worldwide that are implementing nature pedagogy inside, outside and beyond their classrooms, and they are meeting, and in some cases, exceeding, the industry frameworks in which they operate.”

Contacts:

Natureweavers
0403 133 679
www.facebook.com/TheNatureweaversPlace/

Ananda Marga River School
07 5494 3559
www.amriverschool.org/

Starting Strong
0449 029 393
www.facebook.com/pg/outdoorearlylearning.gc

Written by

Kids on the Coast/Kids in the City

1 comment

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