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Stepping stones to an Out and About program

Out and about
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Victorian educator Mim Brown talks about what she’s learnt from her service’s ‘Out and About Program’, working with critical friend and academic Dr Catherine Hamm from Victoria University. Brown is a communications-professional-come-educator with three years’ experience in early education and a recently completed a master’s degree in the area. She joined Clare Court Children’s Service in Yarraville, inner-west Melbourne, in late 2015, the same year the outdoors program began. Through the program, the service commits to engaging with the community, through regular trips to the local shops, library or visits to Cruickshank Park, virtually their backyard. The service undertook a rigorous risk benefit/assessment process before undertaking the program and regularly revisits it, says Brown.

Story told to CELA writer, Margaret Paton

Out and About

There are 14 groups across our service from babies to pre-schoolers. Each group enacts ‘Out and About’ in their own way. For my group, Out and About means engaging with place and respectfully embedding Aboriginal perspectives. We’re on Wurundjeri Country, so this approach is just an extension of our regular play-based, emergent program whether we’re indoors, in our back garden at Clare Court or elsewhere. I am always mindful of acting very ethically when working with Wurundjeri culture and putting a lot of emphasis on listening and not telling, being with rather than learning about.

While we have a program and often go Out and About with a loose plan of what we might do, it also means intentionally not knowing what will emerge next. The program works well for kids who might struggle with conventional indoor programs but it’s also a great way to tune in to each child’s strengths.

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Indigenous protocols

The program picks up Indigenous protocols such as only taking what we can give back to Country (an important line from Aunty Joy Murphy’s book, Welcome to Country). Other times we emphasise the agency of the place – shifting attention from our human-centric default. When a storm blew down a huge bird’s nest last year, this sparked conversations into animal habitats, Bunjil’s nest (Bunjil is the Wurundjeri creator spirit/wedgetail eagle), problem solving and what our responsibility might be to care for the nest. We ended up going back to the service, returning with a ladder and placing the nest back in the branches.

As educators, we raised our concerns about the nest not being so attractive to birds once it had been touched by human hands; but the learning for the children was so powerful, we had to go with it. Through this experience, we had collaborative problem solving, and communication (spoken and written as some of the children created signs to invite the birds back to the nest).

Learning from herons

Herons are another bird that are part of our program. Rather than use their presence to learn about herons, we practice tuning in to the herons to learn with them. How could we move our bodies so as not to disturb them? What questions and answers does their presence or absence provoke?

One day the heron ‘taught’ us what it eats (yabbies); then it disappeared and its absence taught us about the importance of biodiversity and led to concerns about the state of our local creek. Sharing ‘control’ with place like this has allowed us to pay close attention to the lessons and knowledge already present when we really pay attention to place. This can feel at times uncomfortable, but we are discovering so much rich material comes from these uncomfortable places. US philosopher Donna J Haraway calls this “staying with the trouble”. Nice, huh?

Child-led learning

Those big moments like the arrival of the heron attract a lot of excitement, but we aren’t looking to direct the children to set tasks. Some children may be very keen to set up a bushy cubby, while others want to collect treasures or others explore the creek using the stepping-stones. As educators, we guide and remind about our responsibilities to ourselves and others while we are outside.

This means a lot of back-and-forth conversations around our pre-existing program, working with children’s spontaneous questions or discoveries, but we step back, too, to give them space to learn independently.

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Running water ‘talks’

Stepping stones over running water might sound problematic in our sector. We narrate the movement to focus on the agency of place: “How are the stones inviting you to move today; I see you are using your hands and your feet to climb with these stones; which stone is calling to you next; would you like to hold my hand or are you right?”.

After heavy rain, we might walk to the stepping stones and sit back and assess the water. Is it inviting us to cross today. No? Why? The children are regularly reminded that they know what they are ready to take on. “Are you ready to jump or shall we try again another day?” We have a policy of only climbing if we know we can climb back down again.

Find your state of flow

I love the silence and focus we can hold when we listen for our friends, the frogs, or the sheer joy of welcoming unexpected visitors like wildlife. It’s also more than OK to find your own state of flow.

We do step in on the odd occasion the children get caught up in rough play and the beginning of the year may call for slightly more structured experiences than the later stages of the year, but so many of our children have already grown up with regular Out and About they know the expectations around place-based learning.

Related resources

For more information about Dr Catherine Hamm’s work, visit the global research collective, Common Worlds.

Related articles

Let’s get out of here! A story for everyone who’s ever wanted to take children beyond the safety gate.

A bush yarn; how one preschool’s nature program reduced anxiety for both children and educators

Remarkable Differences; children change when they learn outdoors, final in the Raw & Unearthed series


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