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Does ‘safe’ bush kinder lose meaning?

Safe bush kinder programs
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Amplify has often explored ways of thinking about outdoor education, with stories like this one on excursions, this one on nature and anxiety, and this one on children’s attitudes, among our most-read. We’ve also carried many reflections and provocations that point out the elephant in the room: trendy approaches that could do with deeper consideration, like this one on choice for choice’s sake, this one on ‘passion’, and this unforgettable poke at PJ Day

Today’s story, from a new Amplify contributor Mandy Cooke, brings both concepts together as she reflects on a story from a friend, walking her dog…

Time to reflect on bush kinder

With the positive increase in bush kinder programs throughout Australia, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the purpose and implementation of these outdoor sessions.

A recent public interaction with an urban bush kinder suggests work might be needed to ensure all bush kinders are a genuine connection with nature and the community, and not just a bandwagon trend in early childhood education.

I believe wholeheartedly in the concept of bush kinder. Bush kinder brings with it a range of experiences not possible within the confines of the regular early childhood setting. Characteristic of these experiences is that they are unplanned and often unexpected. Unexpected experiences might come in the form of a change in the environment, inclement weather or inhabitant wildlife.

Wildlife in Australia might at best be a harmless insect that children can observe up close without fear of injury, or at worst a snake, silent and unnoticed until you’re on top of it. This risk is real and indisputable.

Image result for redbelly black snake

Growing programs

With enthusiasm and risk management, bush kinder programs continue to grow in number. Following the tradition of European Forest Kindergartens, Australian bush kinders access outdoor spaces wherever they can.

In urban areas, an increasing number of bush kinders take place in public parks. I love this version of bush kinder. In addition to providing opportunities to engage with nature in all its wonder and uncertainty, bush kinder in public spaces provides a valuable opportunity to engage with the community—something that has been sadly lacking in recent generations.

Despite the increasing numbers of bush (and beach) kinders throughout Australia, a recent experience relayed to me suggests that although we may be ‘doing bush kinder’, we may not be making the most of the range of learning opportunities this provides.

Let me tell you a story…

The anecdote is of a friend’s first interaction with a bush kinder program. My friend, Maria, was walking her dog, Jeffrey, through the local ‘off-leash’ area. Shortly after entering the area, Maria and Jeffrey were met by a couple of adults in high-vis vests, arms spread out, ushering similarly clad children back, warning them to ‘beware of the dog’. Both adults appeared concerned, as though imminent danger was afoot.

A week later Maria returned to the off-leash area, only to be greeted by a sign at the entrance stating ‘Kindergarten session in progress. Please keep your dog on a lead’.

She was not happy (and neither was Jeffery). Being the only off-leash area in her neighbourhood, she felt angry at being denied the right to give Jeffery his much-needed freedom.
This restriction does nothing to build community relations, promote the benefits of bush kinder or optimise the range of experiences available to children within the program. Yes, child safety is important, but so is the freedom of all members of our community to engage with public spaces—particularly spaces designated for a specific purpose.

Image source: Mandy Cooke

Where is the line drawn?

Unfortunately, Maria’s story tells of a bush kinder program that not only denied the children a valuable opportunity to engage with both animal and human, it left at least two community members feeling upset and angry.

Were there risks involved in the educators allowing free access between a dog and the children? Yes. But where do we draw the line between experience and over-protection? By alarming and protecting the children, are we keeping them safe or increasing already high anxiety levels?

Tragic events such as the recent case of a toddler killed by the family dog, reinforce that dog and child interactions can be risky. But does this mean nobody has a family dog anymore? No. It means we teach children about dogs and dog safety—we do what we can to mitigate the risks. We don’t take away the experience ‘just in case’.

Teaching children the knowledge and skills to act safely around dogs is an important first stage in the learning process. And as we all know, for meaningful learning to take place, children need the opportunity to put knowledge and skills into practice.

Recently I spent several weeks visiting kindergartens. I found that all five kindergartens had the Victorian Responsible Pet Ownership (Living Safely With Dogs) program visit. This is a long running program that teaches children about how to safely engage with dogs. The proliferation of this program shows that we are teaching children the knowledge and skills to manage themselves safely around dogs.

All theory, no practice

However, Maria’s story questions whether we are allowing children the opportunity to put their knowledge and skills to practice.

Maria and Jeffrey provided an opportunity for the children not only to put their dog safety skills and knowledge into practice, but to engage with a community member, to initiate or reciprocate conversation, to develop and ask questions, and maybe to learn something—something about dogs, people, relationships and their community.

The kinder in this story has not only denied the children this great learning opportunity, they have also alienated themselves from members of their community.

taking children out is only the first step. To meaningfully address this outcome, we also need to let children engage

‘A sense of belonging’

Outcome 2 of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) states:

‘Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active community participation’

Source: Australian Government Department of Education and Training, for the Council of Australian Governments, 2009, p. 26.

Taking children out into the community through bush and beach kinder programs is a great way to engage with this aspect of the framework.

But taking children out is only the first step. To meaningfully address this outcome, we also need to let children engage. This means, like with dog safety, giving children the knowledge and skills to engage with the range of uncertainties that might take place in public spaces.

Like adults, children need to know how to deal with unplanned events, make responsible and appropriate choices and engage curiosity in polite and respectful ways are valuable life lessons. These are lessons that can only be truly embedded through personal experience.

I look forward to the day when outdoor education programs are an embedded aspect of many education settings, not just kindergartens. The positive uptake in recent years shows this might be possible. But to ensure these programs are genuine opportunities to connect with nature and the community, we need to critically reflect on our purpose and implementation so that meaningful learning takes place—and not just another ride on the bandwagon.

Mandy Cooke is a researcher from Victoria, and a PhD candidate at Charles Sturt University.

 

Mandy Cooke

Mandy has 20+ years’ experience in the education of young people. She holds a Bachelor of Teaching, a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is currently working towards a PhD in Early Childhood Education at Charles Sturt University. Mandy’s experience includes primary and early childhood teaching, middle management, leadership, writing and research. Through international and Australian contexts, she has worked with a range of educational approaches including Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Inquiry based learning (PYP). Mandy is a passionate advocate of play, outdoors, risk-taking and the concept of flow- for both children and adults. Her current research project focuses on potentially beneficial risk-taking for children and educators in early childhood education. Mandy works part time lecturing at RMIT and contributes to projects that promote positive life experiences for young people. She recently completed a project with the non-profit organisation Playground Ideas where she authored Early Childhood Education Handbook: A guide to developing high quality early childhood education. This handbook will soon be available to an international audience via the Playground Ideas website www.playgroundideas.org. Mandy is based on the surf coast of Victoria where she works on achieving flow in both work and play.

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4 thoughts on “Does ‘safe’ bush kinder lose meaning?

  1. Hi Mandy

    We run a bush kinder program which is solely run in our local public parks. We undertake risk assessments etc to ensure the area is safe, however we believe in being a part of the community, including interacting safely the many dogs we see on our walk.

    I agree that all the vest wearing and all the other safety equipment is missing the whole point of getting into the community

    1. Hi Su,
      Sounds great. I have heard great things about your service. I’d love to visit one day.
      Cheers,
      Mandy

  2. I operate a Bush service, and as much as the children need to gain knowledge about animals, their behaviour and the required protocols, this cannot be done in a single engagement with an animal they have not yet been familiarized with. A dog came onto the property where the children were playing on an obstacle course in the bush, the chooks were busily scratching in the same area, as usual. Seemed like a docile dog I’d not previously seen, and I stood between where the chickens were feeding and the group of children. Yet in several bounding leaps came grabbed a chicken and off he bounded back across the road, with the poor bird flapping and screeching, and killed it. I’ve reported it to the ranger and spoken to the owner to keep the animal on their property behind locked gates. Extremely cautious and vigilant since this incident.

    What if the dog had attacked a child ……………. we’ve all heard similar horror stories. The authorities would come down on a service with a sledgehammer, quoting Regulation, policies and laws.
    Well done to have placed an exclusion sign, perhaps a time-frame might have calmed the farm.
    [what if the council had placed an exclusion sign regarding spraying toxic chemicals – bet there would have been no complaint] [or when certain areas have a restriction for reserved functions, repairs or maintenence]
    Contact with animals is done via an RBA, prior contact & knowledge about the animal noted, risks, dangers, handling/contact procedures under strict supervision. In the analogy above, this was not conveyed, just an expectation to place trust in both owner & animal that nothing untoward would happen, nor considering how a child might react.

  3. Hi Mandy,
    We run a Bush Kindy program, on local bushland (which is also an unleased dog area) as part of our preschool program on the NSW Central Coast. Since my colleague and I began implementing it last year, we believe we have now successfully embedded it into our program. It’s significance is echoed in our service philosophy, that children are community members and have a right to build a connection with the local environment and learn from the land. Last year the children completed their own risk assessment of their beloved bush kindy. They now do their own orientations with the new children, showing them around and pointing out potential risks in the environment. Not only have they built a connection to this land, they have given back to it. A few months ago, the children raised enough money to buy their own indigenous shrub to plant. A local MP provided us with a tree planter box to keep it somewhat protected, as it grows and thrives. This beloved tree, nicknamed ‘Red’ holds a special place in the children’s hearts. We acknowledge country around this tree upon arrival, it’s our meeting point. They water it everytime we leave. During our walks to bush kindy, the local neighbors have come to know us. At Christmas time, we gave them Christmas cards. As far as dogs go, of course we have encountered them but pets too have rights in our community. We respectfully share the space as much as we can with them and teach children respect for animals.

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