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.

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

ACECQA’s National Education Leader, Rhonda Livingstone provides insight into National Quality Framework topics of interest.

Play based experiences are a vital vehicle for children’s learning and development. Research shows the inherent relationship between sensory learning and children’s enhanced cognitive, social and physical development. This is because children gain understanding about the world by seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving and hearing the things they are learning about.

The National Quality Framework encourages educators to consider how the physical environment, and the way that indoor and outdoor spaces are designed, will support children’s learning. Quality Area 3 of the National Quality Standard identifies that a service’s physical environment should be safe, suitable, appropriately resourced and well maintained. It also needs to be organised to support the participation of all children and implementation of the learning program. Recognition of the learning potential of environments is noted in the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework, which encourages educators to ‘create learning environments that encourage children to explore, solve problems, create and construct’ (p.15).

It is important that we don’t underestimate the value of the learning promoted by being outside. Outdoor environments offer challenges and countless opportunities for healthy active play, while also learning to assess and take appropriate risks. Educators can enhance the choice and quality of learning experiences by supporting flexible use and interaction
between indoor and outdoor spaces. Children can learn about and respect the interdependence between people and nature by using their senses to explore natural environments.

Supporting indoor and outdoor play

When designing and planning the learning environment, consideration needs to be given to children’s individual interests, skills and capabilities. The design of the play environment helps to promote independence, decision making, interaction, relationship building and testing theories.

Engaging in sustained shared conversations by respectfully engaging with children allows educators to extend and support children’s thinking and learning. The image below from the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework shows the balance between guided play and learning, adult led learning and child-directed play and learning.