By CELA on 14 Jan, 2019

Amplify has often explored ways of thinking about outdoor education, with stories like this one on nature and anxiety 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 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.

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.

Meet the author

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 Mandy is based on the surf coast of Victoria where she works on achieving flow in both work and play.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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