Ruth Garlick, an early childhood consultant for NSW Department of Education and Communities, has worked in the sector for more than 25 years. She recently was awarded the Premier’s University of Wollongong Early Childhood Scholarship, which included undertaking a study tour of Europe and Britain to visit several Nature Kindergartens. We hear from Ruth about her study tour and the importance of play whilst connecting children to nature.
As an early childhood educator of more than 25 years, I often look back at my own childhood and wonder if I had somehow missed out by not going to preschool. Who would I be now if I had been given the chance to express my imaginings at an easel or create new worlds in the block corner? Our childhood provides the rare opportunity to explore and interact with the world without fear or judgment, our experiences and interactions shaping who we will be as adults.
While I didn’t go to preschool, I did enjoy experiences that were rich in learning: I had a childhood of outdoor play. I was blessed with an expansive backyard, flower beds, veggie gardens and trees to climb. My childhood was ‘free range’ – one of danger and risks. Bumps and scrapes were an everyday event. We were left to our own devices for hours on end, even days on end during weekends and holidays. We would only return indoors for food, or comfort if something went wrong. Mothers would call from verandahs as the street lights came on. Kids would emerge from trees, cubbies and dried-out dams, racing home on bikes or in battered billy carts, shaking off dirt, scraping off mud and reluctantly going indoors for the family meal, then bath, TV and bed.
I recall one of my earliest memories from when I was four or five, and the grief is still palpable. I had come across a dead magpie, lying on its belly, wings outstretched and head to the side, its lifeless eyes open to the elements and to me. It was under one of the many trees on our property and I was a long way from the house. I sat with the creature, patting its perfect black and white feathers, and sobbed my heart out.
What was it about my early childhood experiences that gave me such an affinity with animals and with the environments that support their existence?
In a world where green time is being replaced with screen time, how do children connect to their natural environment? How do we protect our wild spaces into the future? How do we promote sustainability? And whose responsibility is it?
I recently returned from a study tour where I investigated the concept of early childhood forest schools in Scotland, England and Denmark. This was made possible through the Premier’s University of Wollongong Early Childhood Scholarship. I spent a month visiting sites where outdoor learning is either a major component of the educational setting or is the only component. At some of the sites, the children are outdoors in natural settings for the whole day, in all weathers, and have limited access to an indoor space. At other sites, there was a natural and free movement from indoors to outdoors and the play spaces outside were carefully planned with the use of natural elements in mind (and soul). Children’s voices were clearly represented in the designs and provisions. In one instance, a child’s drawing was exactly replicated in the design of a cubby. This was no token response to a child’s idea. It incorporated many months of collaboration and negotiation, documented in a book for all to share for years to come. What started out as a stark concrete space squeezed between tight inner city apartments became a haven for children, a place where biodiversity could flourish. Small but dynamic. I stayed in Edinburgh for 10 days and as I wandered the streets, the only place I saw a butterfly was in this tiny garden.
During my journey, I kept a blog so I could share the learnings and discoveries which resonated most with me, and I am currently working on a report which will incorporate the research and theories behind my reflections. You will find my blog here: inurturenature.blogspot.com.au
A number of themes presented themselves throughout the study tour.
At every setting, I was met with a strong leadership team which successfully enabled change, bringing a shared vision of rich outdoor experiences to fruition. I was amazed by the impact this leadership had on the staff, on the parents and on the children. I saw leadership shared, with joint collaborations and support for the sort of rich learning that children were accessing every minute of the day.
A COMMITMENT TO LIFELONG DISPOSITIONS FOR LEARNING
We all want children to leave their prior-to-school setting with the ability to succeed in their next adventure, that of formal schooling, but a response to this has often been to formalise early education and prepare children for academic learning, school structures, rules and conformity. In the settings I visited, I experienced a commitment to lifelong dispositions to learning. I interviewed parents about their aspirations for their children, and the message was loud and clear. They want their children to be confident, articulate, resilient and persistent. Surely these characteristics should hold as much, if not more, value in early education than teaching children how to hold their pencil accurately or how to count to 10? If we provide children with strong dispositions for learning, we are preparing them for life, not just for the formalised structures of schooling.
As a society, we have become so risk-averse that children are often prevented from making judgements and assessing their own capacities and abilities. At Auchlone Nature Kindergarten, I walked along a fallen tree with a two year old. As we began, we were about a metre off the ground but as we progressed, the slope of the hill that the tree was resting on gave us more height. We would have been almost three metres off the ground before she took my hand and said “too big”. We made our way back and I was amazed at her ability to make her own judgment and at my ability to trust her instincts. At every site I was confronted with the dangers of tree climbing, bush walking, scampering over rocks, swinging on ropes and scaling to the tops of splintery stumps. There were brambles, uneven ground, stinging nettles and tree roots to trip on. Sticks were one of the main sources of play equipment and I saw them being used in a wide variety of ways. They are a great resource for open-ended play. I saw educators trusting children to make their own risk assessments. While the educators were available for support and guidance, there was no hovering or warnings to ‘be careful, you’ll fall’. Risk was viewed as a benefit, not something that needed to be managed.
An engaging and exciting outdoor space that is filled with natural elements gives children opportunity for long periods of uninterrupted play and autonomy. At Cowgate under 5’s Centre, I accompanied the children to their forest site. There the educators followed children’s lead for the whole day. The day ebbed and flowed with the children deciding where they would explore and when it was time for the next adventure. The educator gave the children time, expertly listening to the group and helping the children to listen to each other. It was responsive and intuitive. I watched a small child lay himself close to the ground, as if needing to be one with the earth, and methodically construct a sand bridge with a hole he could look through. It took about an hour. He was in the flow zone where time ceases to matter and learning is optimised.
OUTDOOR LEARNING EQUALS REAL LEARNING
Often we see the outdoor component of play as a place to run off steam before the real learning commences indoors. When children are given opportunities for extended periods of play outdoors, their senses are ignited, their affinity with active learning is activated, their curiosity and exploratory natures are set free and problem solving becomes a natural response to difficulties that need to be overcome. My experiences during my study tour consolidated this belief, which has always underpinned my early childhood ethos. The principles, practices and learning outcomes within the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) are all promoted through outdoor learning. Take any component of the EYLF and I know I could come up with an example from my trip that demonstrates how outdoor learning can provide a responsive approach within educational settings. I’m up for that challenge, maybe you could be too?
I encourage all early childhood educators to take a stand for outdoor learning in natural play spaces, not only for what it can do to promote a more sustainable future, but for the benefits it can bring to our children at this very moment. A sense of ‘belonging’ to the earth is the first step to ‘being’ at peace within it. With these in place we will be more able to solve what is to ‘become’ of our fragile planet into the future.
So, what is one thing that you can do? Decide what it is, preferably with the help of the children that you are educating, and do it. Then please celebrate what you have achieved together. I’d love to hear of your ideas. Feel free to comment on the blog.