By CELA on 5 Jul, 2021

Unless we are willing to encourage our children to reconnect with and appreciate the natural world, we can’t expect them to help protect and care for it. David Suzuki.

St John the Baptist ELC in Woy Woy has taken a proactive approach to ensuring that children have the opportunity to connect and appreciate the natural world every day by incorporating not one, but two bush kindy sites into their program. The program operates all year round, with children spending between 1-1.5 hours at bush kindy each day. ECT Leah Goncalves shares a reflection on the many ways it benefits children at her centre.

By Leah Goncalves

Inspired by the European forest schools model

We started a bush kindy program in 2018 after I spent time researching forest schools in northern Europe. I fell in love with their approach to curriculum and the strong emphasis on nurturing wellbeing through time spent in nature.  It was always a dream of mine to be able to implement a bush kindy program and my Director allowed me to bring this dream to realisation. I shared this with our team, many of whom were enthusiastic about the idea.

We do our best to work around the elements of the weather. In summer, we try to go in the morning before it gets too hot. We’ve purchased rain suits for when the conditions are damp or wet. The only time we don’t go is when there are strong winds because of the risk of falling branches and heavy rain.

Learning in nature has proven benefits including higher learning outcomes

Bush kindy is by no means a “new fad”. Research has shown that this type of education contributes to higher learning outcomes in the latter years, as time in nature presents a number of learning opportunities, including creative thinking, adaptability and problem solving skills.

In fact, a longitudinal UK study¹ called ‘The Hare and the Tortoise go to Forest School: taking the scenic route to academic attainment via emotional wellbeing outdoors’ found positive changes in children’s self-regulation and resilience through ‘emotional space’ (defined as the provision of physical space and time in which the children are free to be themselves and express their emotions).

The study showed that children’s academic attainment, social development, and emotional well-being increased as a result of forest school, and in comparison to peers who didn’t participate. The study showed, in particular, how playful social interactions in forest school can support emotional resilience, which in turn supports academic attainment.

McCree, Cutting & Sherwin, 2017

A natural way to inspire respect

Respect at Bush Kindy is intentionally taught and practiced in several ways:

  1. Respect for the traditional owners, the Darkinjung people, is practiced before play, through Acknowledgement of Country.
  2. Children are reminded to practice respect and care for the land that they are playing on.
    → This may be as simple as not standing on that young branch that still needs time to grow, just like them.
  3. Respect for others is intentionally taught, as per the rules of stick play – never to hurt another living being.
    → A stick can be many things, a fishing wand, a fairy wand, a microphone, a cooking utensil, a paddle, a horse, a broom, part of a teepee or many other things.
    → Children are encouraged to actively use their imaginations and creativity within the rules, which keep all safe.
  4. Respect for animals, no matter how small is taught.
    → This is their home and they are not ours to be handled.
  5. Respect for boundaries is intentionally taught, through a daily risk benefit assessment – where is safe to play and where is not.
  6. Respect for preservation is intentionally taught.
    → Rubbish belongs in the bin and not in the natural environment, where it may flow into a natural watercourse, and a bird or turtle may mistake it for food and sadly have to face the consequences of a “ human care factor – zero” attitude.

A time to nourish children’s holistic wellbeing

The benefits of being in nature have been found to enhance wellbeing. In fact, Japanese researchers identified the benefits back in the 1980’s and have developed an actual practice for it, known as “Shinrin-yoku”, which translates in English to “Forest Bathing”.

Forest bathing involves spending free time wandering in nature. This therapeutic method was designed to enhance wellbeing, health, and joy. It’s used widely in Japan for purposes of preventative healthcare in Japanese medicine.

Looking at the Australian statistics for childhood anxiety (Australian Government, 2020), 14% of children aged 4 to 11 experienced a mental disorder, which indicates something clearly needs to change.

Reflection is needed.

What can help lower these rates?

Part of the solution is right here in nature

Obviously, there are many protective factors, one of them being time spent in nature. If children can learn one thing before they go to school, I hope it is to establish a connection to nature and all that flows from it, as it is something that will support them for their entire life and a lesson that will help them navigate this rapidly changing world.

Perhaps we can see bush kindy and time spent in nature as a protective measure, and a quality experience – a need as opposed to a recreational program, and a way to protect a child’s wellbeing and support lifelong learning.

 Further reading


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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