Exploring and connecting with nature

Educators at Goodstart Red Hill had long admired forest kindergartens from afar, never really considering how that might look in an Australian setting. Then they realised they had an amazing and diverse environment right on their doorstep. Skye Devereaux, Early Childhood Teacher and Educational Leader, writes this month on how Goodstart Red Hill developed their Nature Space program.

2016 14632 Goodstart photo #4

The Educational Leadership team at Red Hill had a goal to provide all our children with regular opportunities to connect with nature and develop a sense of wonder, curiosity and respect for the environment around them. We wanted children to develop a love for nature and the world in which they live, in the hope that they have a strong connection with the environment they grow up in and, maybe one day, will figure out how to fix the environmental issues they inherit.

The planning process was extensive, spanning many months from when the idea was born in late 2013. We identified a nearby wild space with access to Ithaca Creek, which our service backs on to, and a wonderful enclosed forest space. Excursion plans were completed, along with a variety of risk and benefit assessments for the different activities we imagined would take place. We consulted with the Goodstart Health and Safety Team, seeking advice and guidance. The Red Hill educational team participated in training with Nikki Buchan, an educational consultant, on bush schools and the benefits of wild nature play. An event was then held to inform parents about the Nature Space program where we invited feedback and answered questions.

2016 14628 Goodstart photo #1

After this preparation we began taking small, mixed age, focus groups of children to the wild space, observing how they engaged in the space and the supports they (and we) needed.

We hosted a weekend Clean Up Australia Day event with our families, introducing them to the wild space. Fifty people from our learning community attended and our risk and benefit assessments were displayed through the wild space.

At the end of February 2014, we began taking whole class groups out to the wild space. Each class, from toddler through to kindergarten, ventured out for one morning each week between 10am and 11.30am. We packed our little red wagon with first aid essentials, water bottles and baskets for collecting, and let the natural environment seize our imaginations and guide our play.

Since beginning our nature play program, the children at Red Hill are noticeably more confident and resilient learners, with an adventurous, enquiry based approach to learning. Through their play in the wild space they have become proficient at self-risk assessment, and approach risky play with careful consideration and minimal, respectful support from their peers and teachers.

2016 14630 Goodstart photo #2

The children have learned to slow down and spend time to look, watch and wonder. The Nature Space program allows time for the children to imagine and create using only what the environment provides. A log becomes a baby, crushed bark some snow and a bouncing log becomes a rocket, a horse or a broomstick.

Children willingly collaborate and support one another in the challenges presented with determined perseverance and confidence in their eventual success, if not this week then perhaps the next. The older children, now with several years of play experience in the space, share their stories and pass down skills to the younger children and so each new year group learns about the Magical Forest, Sunshine Hill and The Giant’s Chair, each named by children who have now passed through the dense trees and leafy carpet for a final time. They are creating new, oral histories but at the same time are curious about the original occupants of the space, wondering what came before.

In the two and a half years since the program launched, the way we inhabit the space has changed somewhat. As the environment and our knowledge of it have developed, so too has our play. While our time was initially focussed on the creek and Sunshine Hill, now we play almost exclusively in the forest.

2016 14631 Goodstart photo #3

Make believe play has emerged as the prevailing form during the visits, with games and ideas carrying over weeks and even months.

Mindfulness has become a focus of the groups’ visits with children engaged in before and after practices of being, reflecting on their presence in time and space.

Our hope continues to be that these children will grow up with fond childhood memories of their time spent in this space with us, and leave us having developed a strong connection to and understanding of the world around them.

Sustainability in children’s education and care

Sustainability

Rhonda Livingstone, ACECQAThis month ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone, promotes sustainability and looks at why it’s important for children to explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment.

Living sustainably means living within the capacity of the natural environment to support life and ensuring our current lifestyle has minimal impact on generations to come. Sustainable practices relate not only to the natural environment, but also our society and culture, including aspects such as consumerism and community well-being.

As the need for greater sustainability becomes more apparent globally, so does the importance of embedding sustainability in children’s programs. Through hands-on experiences and relevant educator pedagogies, children can explore and learn about their local contexts and environmental issues. They can develop the creativity and critical thinking skills necessary to make informed decisions for change, improving the quality of their lives, and those of future generations.

Practicing sustainability empowers children to construct knowledge, explore values and develop an appreciation of the environment and its relationship to their worlds. This lays the foundations for an environmentally responsible adulthood.

Sue Elliott, Senior Lecturer from the University of New England, NSW, says ‘early childhood education for sustainability is a transformative and empowering process actively engaged in by children, families and educators who share an ecocentric worldview’ (Elliott, 2014, p.15).  An ecocentric worldview is one that embraces all the Earth’s life forms and physical elements, not just humans.

When there is an alignment of philosophies, ethics and beliefs in a service, sustainability becomes the norm and has a positive impact on children’s learning and the wider community.

The Early Years Learning Framework, the Framework for School Age Care and the National Quality Standard promote embedding sustainability in all daily routines and practices. Services often find elements relating to sustainability under Quality Area 3 challenging to meet.

Holistic approach

Educators typically focus on sustainable practices and activities for children in the outdoor environment. However, it is important to embed sustainability more broadly in all aspects of service operations. A holistic approach to sustainability is essential, acknowledging the natural, social, political and economic dimensions as defined by UNESCO (2010).

Sue Elliott (2014, p. 52) offers the following questions to get started on a journey of change:

  • What practical first step or action priority could we engage in that best reflects the interests and/or strengths of this community?
  • How will we decide on the most relevant and achievable action?
  • Which stakeholders in our service may have an interest in this action priority?

Other questions for reflection include:

  • What strategies do we use to foster children’s capacity to value and respect the broader environment and appreciate the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land?
  • How are children involved in the environmentally sustainable practices already existing at the service and in the community?
  • What connections have we made within the local indigenous community that support a deeper connection to the land?
  • How will we maintain the inspiration and momentum for the journey of change?

Starting point

Nadine McCrea (2015, p. 64), Associate Professor at University of New England, suggests the following sustainable practices as starting points.

  • create edible gardens for sharing and/or cooking produce
  • implement an energy saving policy including heating, cooling, lights, appliances
  • practise green cleaning
  • be active citizens for sustainability in local community projects
  • collect natural materials for play ethically, only taking a few and using respectfully
  • install a solar hot water system
  • reuse and repurposing materials for play
  • create a second-hand children’s book or clothing exchange for families
  • use forest-friendly paper products
  • avoid disposable, single use items
  • investigate local indigenous environmental knowledge
  • implement a sustainable purchasing policy including local products and minimised packaging

What other possibilities might be relevant to your education and care service?

Network

Educators might consider joining a sustainable education network for ideas to engage in sustainable practices. Current networks include:

The Early Childhood Environmental Education Network has developed the Eco Smart for Early Childhood – a sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans along with a version designed specifically for family day care educators. Other useful resources include:

References and resources

Davis, J. (Ed.) (2015). Young children and the environment: Early education for sustainability (2nd edn.), Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, S. (2014). Sustainability and the Early Years Learning Framework. Mt Victoria, NSW: Pademelon Press.

McCrea, N. (2015). Leading and management: Early childhood settings – Inspiring people, places and practices. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press.

NSW ECEEN (2012). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

NSW ECEEN (2015). ECO SMART for Early Childhood – A sustainability filter for Quality Improvement Plans Family Day Care revision. Sydney, NSW: OEH ET & NSW ECEEN.

UNESCO (2010) Four dimensions of sustainable development. Retrieved 25 September, 2014, from http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_a/popups/mod04t01s03.html

Young, T. & Elliott, S. (2014) Ways of thinking, acting and relating about sustainability. Deakin West, ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

Nurturing nature

RuthRuth 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

cowgate
Before and After: The outdoor space at Cowgate under 5’s Centre before consultation with the children (left) and Cowgate Under 5’s current outdoor space (right)

A number of themes presented themselves throughout the study tour.

LEADERSHIP

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.

RISK BENEFIT

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.

AUTONOMY

boy in dirtAn 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.

Taking an active role in the environment and promoting a sustainable future

sustainabilitynewslettercoverIn recognition of World Environment Day this month, we hear from ACECQA’s National Education Leader Rhonda Livingstone about sustainability and how it can be incorporated into services’ programs and practices.

Standard 3.3 of the National Quality Standard aims to encourage children to increase their understanding about their responsibility to care for the environment, day to day, and for long-term sustainability.

Supporting children to appreciate and care for the environment is not a new concept. A respected educator, Anne Stonehouse wrote, back in 2006:

One of the most significant responsibilities that [early childhood] professionals have is to support children to retain the sense of awe and wonder that they are born with, to add to that a desire to nurture and protect what is beautiful, and to encourage them to appreciate that there are many possibilities for honouring life and wonders that the world holds.”[1]

Standard 3.3 recognises that children develop understandings of themselves and their world through active, hands-on investigation. A supportive active learning environment encourages children’s engagement with the environment and provides authentic, meaningful experiences to be embedded in every day practice.

Traditionally, many educators have embedded sustainable practices in services. Examples include recycling boxes, leaves and paper for collage; emptying water troughs into garden areas; using wood tailings for carpentry; and separating food scraps and packaging.  It is important to build on these practices and think about other clean, green and environmentally friendly practices to share with children. Children and families should be encouraged to contribute ideas and suggestions and there are often community organisations such as local councils that can provide suggestions and advice. The Little Green Steps is an example of a collaborative project between early childhood services, councils and community organisations to embed sustainable practices and change behaviours.

The Guide to the National Quality Standard includes examples of sustainable practices, but it is important to remember these are only examples and services are encouraged to consider the wide range of ways to promote sustainability within childhood learning. Services can bring to children’s attention the importance of recycling, energy efficiency and water conservation through a variety of creative ways. While solar panels, water tanks, worm farms, vegetable patches may help, it is important to consider the setting, the children, the families, the educators and the community when choosing and implementing sustainable resources and practices. What will children learn from the experience, how will it contribute to their knowledge and understanding, and is it meaningful for the service?

So where to start?
Undertaking an open, honest assessment of your service against the elements in Standard 3.3 is a good starting point to identify the strengths of your service and areas for improvement. Then it is important to review your Quality Improvement Plan to identify the priorities for attention.

The questions on page 100 of the Guide to the National Quality Standard will also help prompt discussion and guide reflection around this standard. Learning Outcome 2 in the Early Years Learning Framework and Framework for School Age Care also provides insights about helping children to be socially responsible and show respect for the environment.

There are a number of resources to provide information on embedded sustainability practices, examples include Early Childhood Australia’s webpage on sustainability resources and the Inclusion and Professional Support Program’s Online Library.

Examples of practices services use include engaging children in:

  • observing and caring for various animals, such as fish, reptiles and insects
  • implementing water conservation mechanisms such as timers, stickers visible on taps, putting out buckets to collect rain water
  • taking responsibility for turning off lights and fans before going outdoors
  • caring for worm farms and using the jars of “worm juice” collected by children as fertiliser to use at home
  • sorting and recycling waste after meals and encouraging the use of reusable containers to store snacks and meals
  • creating garden patches, allowing children to participate in growing fruit, flowers or vegetables.

For infant and toddler groups, implementing sustainable practices could involve making considered decisions about the nappies to use and looking at options that are environmentally friendly or have minimal environmental impact. Consideration could also be given to choosing environmentally friendly cleaning products and procedures. ACECQA recently spoke with educators who undertake gardening with their infants and toddlers, watering plants, picking strawberries, with educators and children modelling sustainable practice for younger children.

In order to be empowering, sustainability programs should be positively focused and affirmative. They should emphasise the child’s ability to make a difference. These programs enable children to learn and appreciate their environment in an engaging, fun and exciting manner.

What will assessors look for in assessing National Quality Standard 3.3?
Assessors will be looking for a range of opportunities offered by the service to support children develop an appreciation of nature, respect for the natural environment, understanding of the interdependence between people, plants, animals and the land.

Assessors will also be looking to see if sustainability is embedded in the service’s educational program and in the routine and practices of children. For example, while setting up a nature table or recycling system are positive starts, these activities should not exist in isolation, but be built upon, coordinated and consistently undertaken to become an embedded practice.

Before your rating and assessment visit, think about what you would like the authorised officer to observe, discuss and see that will demonstrate how the National Quality Standard is met. This is your opportunity to showcase how management, educators, children and families are working collaboratively to embed sustainable practices that are meaningful and relevant.

Examples of initiatives that a service may want to involve parents, families and the wider community in to promote sustainability include:

  • celebrating national and local environmental initiatives, such as Clean Up Australia Day, World Environment Day, National Tree Day and Earth Hour
  • getting involved with local bush and land care groups
  • consider a visit to local permaculture gardens, nature walks, wildlife parks and/or farms
  • implementing water saving devices, such as shower heads and hose nozzles, or having these as prizes for raffles or lucky door prizes
  • involving parents and/or visitors who have expertise in environmental education to talk to children
  • making energy-saving tips available to families.

The possibilities are endless, and the potential limitless.

 

[1]Anne Stonehouse, ‘NSW Curriculum Framework for Children’s Services’ http://www.community.nsw.gov.au/docswr/_assets/main/documents/childcare_framework.pdf

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