Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bush School - Nature Education in Australia

"I detest schools with a passion. 
My main beef with schools  is that they are an utter waste
 of young life because they don't educate. 
Education is preparing someone for life and schools fail to do that"  Terry Deary 

 I am in my element .....children, wild space, time, camera 
........and I am in a school!! 
A school unlike the ones described by Terry Deary

A space where you are trusted, a place for freedom, creativity and natural exploration.
Spirit of Play Community School is a small rural school in a picturesque old Post Office building in Denmark, Western Australia which is situated next to bushland and a creek. The teachers, Sarah and Regi, together with an enthusiastic group of parents approached me to support them in creating an identity for the school which has always had a strong link to the natural and indigenous environment. It seemed natural to develop a Bush/Forest school as there was already such a great passion and enthusiasm for nature education within the school. I am delighted to be supporting this development - in Scotland I had helped set up the internationally renowned outdoor Nature Kindergartens as well as being the Head of the Kindergartens until I moved to Australia, I am passionate about children having the time and freedom to really investigate what is important to them in a natural environment.
Feeling the natural environment - really being part of it

There are of  course many differences between Scotland and Australia; in climate, in fauna and in flora, in risks as well as in culture that I need to be aware of but these I can research to develop an understanding.  

I believe that children the world over develop, play and learn in a similar manner and that the curricular outcomes adults design and teach to, do not change that ..... children themselves are not dictated to by a changing curriculum. Deep level, long term real, contextual learning and understanding is achieved when children are motivated by the learning opportunity and this happens when children are allowed to influence the program and are also allowed to explore their interests in depth. Children do not learn in set 45 minute periods ......... that is not enough time to really explore and complete an investigation....... no wonder many children or young people struggle to complete tasks as they mature!

Being able to support children’s learning in a wild space is very different to working in a classroom and even in a garden. That very close connection to unprocessed nature allows us to really FEEL what nature is about, to realize and appreciate our place in it – to me it is something that is alive and is in ME and I believe children and adults can also feel that as they get to know and love the natural wild space; a spiritual connection. Children with a love and appreciation of wild nature will grow up to value and protect this environment for themselves and future generations.

I arrived at the school on the first morning of the term with my prepared interest box on 'tools', the children gathered around curious to find out what was in the mystery box.

As a group we created a 3D mindmap about saws to find out what knowledge the children had, then looked at the possible risks of using various different tools. We discussed and I demonstrated how to use the tools safely with children making the suggestions and rules. 

I demonstrated the new Treewrap™, the children helped to decide what should go into it for our adventure into the bush. ALL the tools, wire, twine, tarpaulin, shadow sheet!

Gathering at the garden gate the children counted how many children were present that  day, they then each picked up a special stone, placed it on a log and counted the stones. Each stone represents a child; on their return from the bush, children would take one of the stones off the log; if any stones are left they will know that somebody is missing – in this way children are part of taking care of the group's welfare.

Before crossing the track children sang a song looking left and right and then listening – a large noisy digger caused excitement; on the return trip they commented on the fast speed of a white car and declared it unsafe while the other car was much slower and safer. Once over the road children were trusted to run to the area in the bush they had identified as the space to explore on this day.

Children helped to wrap the Treewrap™ around a large tree rather than suspending it between two smaller trees; now they could select and have free access to the tools and resources displayed in the pockets or hung from the Velcro straps. A storage system allows adults to have an overview of what tools are in use; children are encouraged to bring tools and resources back and not to leave them lying on the ground.

Sticks used to mark make and to construct,

Everybody very quickly settled down – each child free to choose what they wanted to engage in and adults there to offer support if needed or requested but otherwise to record children’s comments and actions as well as observing and assessing the interaction and learning. Adults are or should be very much part of any high quality environment, observations and assessments are continuous and not intrusive to the children's play or concentration. It should not be necessary to set up activities to do this.

During the nearly 3 hours we were in the bush there were no arguments, no raised voices, children naturally shared, took turns  and also supported each other with self chosen projects. Adults commented on the calm purposefulness and full engagement every child displayed in their chosen activity - they all had a sense of agency.

Signing the first page of the Project Book
Sharing our reflections
Back in the school, after lunch and playing in the naturalistic garden we again gathered to allow adults and children to reflect on their experiences of the day. All the children were very keen to share their experiences of the day which together with photographs, the children’s voices and the planning possibilities adults have reflected on that come to inform future planning. Two children who had moved away from the group in the bush and had not immediately responded to the signals from the teacher were calmly encouraged to reflect on the situation and discuss possible solutions. All the children contributed to the session in a way they were comfortable with, some more verbal than others!
What did we do in the bush - did we learn anything?

"The challenge for us as adults is to be able to stand back, trust that learning is happening, identifying the learning and finding an appropriate  way to evidence and record this learning so that it is also meaningful to the children."

Splitting reeds and removing the soft centre
One child made a mini basket using reed she had picked herself. "You take out the soft in the middle, then you tear long bits until you have lots. You twist like this and then the other way, you count when you make it" I wish I had the manual dexterity she had!

The baby fairy bed
Two of the children created a fairy house using loose bits from their environment, while others contributed objects they had created using the tools. "The fairy house for tiny fairies. I need sticks, not those; this long and then another one the same. This is the bed, we need two [gum-nuts]. They fly here and there is a baby in that bed"

Many children enjoyed exploring what the hand-drill can do and took turns with the one we had, negotiating as well as sometimes compromising! This little boy was fascinated by the mechanism and technology of the hand-drill, he carefully watched the cogs move as he turned the handle. He experimented drilling into different branches and logs - some were soft and decomposing while others were very hard or still green. He drilled through a stick and tried to simultaneously drill through a gum-nut - concentrating to position the objects so that they lined up. He did not get frustrated but quietly persevered at the tasks he had set himself.
Drill through the stick and the Gum-nut
Helping to change the drill bit

Another little boy used the hand borer to make holes in a seedpod he had found and then pushed a piece of wire into the hole.

The soft wire was used to lash sticks together, to bend and to make little  figurines, to decorate the fairy house and also to bend and shape into different numbers!

The files were also very popular with children experimenting on different sticks and branches and using different angles of the file as they were easy to use and results were immediate. Some created patterns on sticks, while others worked on getting the wood as smooth as possible, I was impressed by the descriptive language these young children used.          
The saws were always in use! During the morning discussion we had examined the benefits as well as the risks and also looked at various procedure to reduce risk. In the bush most of the children chose not to wear a glove - they were gently reminded but once they confirmed that they knew what the possible risks were and what the procedures were to protect themselves against this risk and they still chose not to wear a glove the adults respected this choice.                                 

One child spent all his time in the bush creating a caterpillar world with a cocoon, a place for them to sleep or hide in as well as making a caterpillar using two sticks balanced at right angles to each other creating a triangle - very tricky until he tied them together with wire. Others joined him, contributing and then moving away again.

A great deal of time was spent on a very detailed mini shelter. One of the older boys initiated this activity and very soon some of the younger ones contributed as well by finding an assortment of natural materials and making suggestions as to how they could be used. The children treated each other with respect and kindness at all times.

The older boy shaped four small detailed figurines and placed all of  them on tiny logs around a mini log fire. "can't leave those in there when we go as that would be littering and not good for the environment" the older boy explained to the younger children. 
The shelter was measured in centimeters as well as inches so that it could be recreated at a later date or place. Some children felt it would be good to have a bigger shelter in the bush. There was a discussion about increasing the dimensions so that the children could use the shelter too. This resulted in a complex problem solving  mathematical discussion about ratios, percentages and surface area. The boy photographed his structure so that he could share it with his friends as well as having a copy himself as he took pride in what he had initiated.

The bush site the children had chosen this day had previously been used for an Aboriginal ceremony and white beach sand had been placed in a clearing. Children started to dig in this space and were excited to discover that below the the white sand they could find dark sand, stones and even some glass and plasterboard. They wondered how this could have happened and a number of different theories were offered by the children. They did not ask any  of the adult for their opinions!                        

As they compared holes, they noticed that all  the soil layers were of different depths in the  sand holes so fetching the tape measure they then set about measuring the depths of the layers in the holes and then comparing the differences between the holes.
One of the younger boys sat quietly gathering the different piles of sand into mini mountains next to each hole. He explained that all this sand came out of that hole and that the big hole had more sand and a bigger mountain than the small hole but if they did some more digging then they could make bigger mountains. The children discussed this with some claiming that sand from other holes could have got mixed up. I was impressed with his knowledge of displacement!

When it was time to go back to the school the children all tidied up making sure all the tools were packed and that no wire or twine had been left behind that could injure any bush creatures. They ran back along the track, some of them so confident in that terrain that they walked backwards, took an exciting short cut through a dry ditch to then enjoy their lunch outdoors - they all ate very well! A new rope web was very popular and the hammock was used to lie in as well as to turn themselves into a cocoon.

I thank all the children as well as parents and teachers for allowing me this opportunity to share my love of the wild space with them - I have been invited back and will most certainly be there when I have a day off .... as Wells N M (2000) stated."Proximity to, views of and daily exposure to natural settings increase children’s ability to focus and enhance cognitive abilities."
I KNOW they increase mine too!

“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow 
them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what 
Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the 
sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”
-                                                      David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobi


  1. wow - what an amazing day you all had!

    1. We did and that is what all children should have every day!

  2. I never knew this place existed! At our school (Kinma) we see the bush surrounding it as an extension of our learning environment, and the kids develop an intimate relationship with it. Just walking to "boat rock" - said to be an aboriginal birthing rock - you feel a spiritual connection to the land. My boys learnt to love the bush, they learnt about bush tucker, about taking risks, about using their imaginations, about thinking creatively and about the insects and animals that made it their home. I'm am incredibly grateful that it is such an integral part of their primary schooling (8 year old came home wet and muddy after a trip to the creek today!)

    1. Jenny, what a lovely description of your children's schooling - I so feel that all children should have that right but I am seeing changes in Australia which is brilliant. There are some really good environments where children have these experiences and I want to promote them so that it becomes more mainstream instead of being seen as different. I would love to do more blogs like this one where I can promote the good work. I agree with you about the spiritual connections to nature......and I am very excited to be learning about bush tucker and the other knowledge the children here have that I don't have - you are never too old!

  3. Thank u for sharing this detailed and high quality documentation! There is so much for all to learn from this. Such a gift we have in australia with allthat good clean dirt! I am in hong kong where dirt is either poluted or the adults just cant allow choldren to touch it. School environments are utterly sterile. So sad. Really enjoyed this post!

    1. Thank you and I am so sorry and sad that the children in Hong Kong are unable to experience the same freedom in a wild natural space. Maybe I should come to Hong Kong and find a suitable wild space for children! :-)

    2. Actually there are! I live in the New Territories. It is a change of mindset. More research needs to be done. I look forward to following your blog. THanks again.

  4. Hi Nikki,

    What a wonderful write up! I was one of the parent's that was there that day. I'm so grateful that my son has the opportunity to learn in such a creative & joyful way. To my son, it most likely feels like he is just playing, which is even better as I believe it will lay the foundations of learning is fun!

    1. Thank you - I just loved being with the children as they were able to explore and investigate in their own time. They are very lucky children to have the environment as well as the amazing teachers and parents who believe in this philosophy. Learning should be fun and is fun if we are allowed to learn about what interests us at the time. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy your son's company too.

  5. Wow, how did I miss this when you posted it, Niki?! I can't tell you how exciting I think this post is. Honestly, if only more people - educators, bureaucrats, parents, and especially children - could get to see your work here I can't imagine that they would not be excited by it too.

    And the learning that you document so clearly is learning that simply can not happen in a "normal" school. (I have a saying: "there is nothing you can do inside a classroom that you cannot do outside, but there are a thousand things that you can only do outside which are impossible inside".)

    But most people simply have no idea that such an educational model exists, let alone that it is being implemented all over the world with stunning results. And that it is practical, and affordable and that it does not require vast tracts of pristine environment for it to work. Forest/bush schools could be running now in the vast majority of Perth's suburbs for instance, most of which have suitable areas of remnant bush. Even in highly degraded natural environments there are opportunities for rich, fulfilling, exciting education and learning.

    Now that I've belatedly found your post I've shared it to Facebook, of course :)

  6. Thanks Alec, I have been fortunate enough to visit a number of schools throughout Australia that have a similar philosophy but they don't always publicize the great work they are doing. I am hoping to feature some other settings in the future. This school is great and I will be spending some of my free days with the children .....maybe next time on the beach as they have access to this too! Lucky children and staff. I am hoping that with the training that is coming to Australia soon with a focus on taking children from birth to 12 outdoors and connecting or keeping them connected to nature we will see many more children have such opportunities.

  7. I so want to live in Albany now, but hey, we are home schooling already and pretty much do similar. Thx for sharing. I enjoy your blog.

  8. Thank you! Where are you homeschooling? Some of the children in this school are also home schooled but come and spend some time at the school too!

  9. Hi Niki

    I came across this by researching oz and it is amazing, I love the whole journey children take through these sessions. I am a childcare manager in the UK and have done my Forest School Leadership course, I am moving out to Australia end of this year and would love to contact you to see what things are around like this. I'm aware the training company I did my Forest School through have just delivered training in Perth and Sydney. I'm looking at Perth area but nothing set in stone so to speak, my uncle just move to Albany last week.
    Keep up the inspirational work, its professionals like yourself who keep me going and enjoying my job.


  10. Hi Michelle, you will love Australia - I do and have been here for 9 months now. What a coincidence that your uncle has also moved to Albany. Perth is a great place to be too and more central than Albany! Where are you from in the UK? I lived in Scotland for nearly 15 years. I have been promoting and working with family day carers, kindergartens and schools here to develop forest/bush/beach schools and am finding there is a great interest in this. With your training you should be able to work in this area and I might be able to point you in the right direction when you get here. The company you are talking about delivered a session in Perth (not Sydney)but I work through Claire Warden and Mindstretchers who are based in Scotland but very popular here in Australia - also delivering Forest School training as well as Nurture Through Nature (0-3 years, Nature Kindergartens (3-5 years)and lots of other training......I get to travel all over Australia delivering this training...very exciting. I look forward to hearing more about your plans - you will love the bush and the beaches!

    1. I nearly did my training through mindstretchers but the dates through the other place were better. I'm in Leeds,my mums orginally from linwood but came here and married a yorkshire man. I spent half my life in linwood and then aberdeen. I'm interested to know the best route for the move. Is there anyway of private messages on here just so i dont keep interupting your posts.

    2. Hi Michelle
      You can e-mail me on nikbuchan@googlemail.com

  11. I love all your photos of some extremely busy kids. You have given me some great ideas to do with my own kids, we live in the city but can definitely do something along these lines too.

    1. Ali, I am curious what your children did when you took them to a wild space?

  12. Shedding tears of joy as I read this. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful and magic day! Reading this recount inspires me….. I am currently halfway though my Bachelor in Early Childhood Education, this style of learning and discovery resonates deep within my sole.

  13. Lexi, I am always so excited to find another like minded person who has children's best interest at heart. You can make a big difference by pushing for children's rights to be allowed motivational opportunities to learn. I don't know where you are based - is it Australia too?

  14. Hi, I was simply checking out this blog and I really admire the premise of Childcare sydney

  15. I'd love more of these everywhere! I wish there were primary & secondary schools that still took life & nature into account!!

  16. I am hoping that primary and secondary schools will realise the value of nature education and include this in their daily program. In the UK Forest Schools are big although these are short releases from 'normal' schooling but adults are starting to see the value and I hope that one day this will be embedded in their philosophy. I know of a couple of schools in Australia that do have this close connection to nature.

  17. Great work Nikki. reminds me of the learning through play that happens at our weekly sessions of Natured Kids outdoor playgroup.www.naturedkids.com
    Keep up the great work. Narelle Debenham.

  18. Thank YOu nikki for your time in christchurch. It was reassuring to meet like minded teachers. I was starting to think no one else thought about children's rights. I would continue to push the boundaries at work for the chidlren. I have also been inspired to start my own blog about my journey


    1. Jeff, there are many like minded people and I am sure you will meet more on your journey. Good luck with your blog and what clever girls to sort it out themselves

  19. The information written in the article is descriptive and well written.It is also simple to read and understand.Good Read.
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  20. Hi Niki,

    I see it says below that you are in Newcastle NSW. I live in the forest at the southern end of the Hunter Valley, and I grew up in Newcastle. I have come across your site doing a search on Forest Schools in Australia. Could you please tell me where I can access some Forest School training or anything related, in our local area ? Im even happy to travel anywhere in the state.
    Thankyou, Kelia xxx

  21. Why is there nothing set up on a permanent bacis in Perth ? Western Australia, this would be soo good for kids, I'd send my daughter if we had one here:)

    1. Hi Jessica, there are a number of schools in the Perth area who now take children into the bush regularly. If you are on Facebook there is a site I have started called Bush, Forest, Beach School Australia where you can ask for more information. There is also another one called Nature-based Pedagogy International which has like minded people from around the world share their experiences. Good luck and I hope you find the right setting for your daughter.

  22. How do I apply for a job with in the bush school? Im originally from Cornwall, UK where I studied childcare coming out with Distinction and Distinction* qualifications, I was looking into starting an outdoor nature school for children in UK but now I'm over here I'd love the opportunity to work with in this school even if its just part time.
    Look forward to a reply,
    My email address is welsh.zena15@gmail.com

    Have a lovely day,

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  25. I do wish I'd attended a school like this and that I'd taught in schools like this, that I'd been trained to teach like this instead of in an orthodoxy which saw children as beings to be controlled and filled up with information and then put into a hierarchy of success or failure.