When the idea of ‘bush kindergartens’ was first introduced at Roskill South Kindergarten in 2009, the teaching team thought they would trial it for a few weeks then reassess the idea.

But within an hour they knew it was there to stay.

“We were wanting to provide the children with another environment that they could explore and learn in – play with sticks and ropes, climb trees, and run wild – and we wanted them to have the space and freedom to do so,” says head teacher Karen Ramsey.

“They just took to it with great enthusiasm.”

The Auckland kindergarten backs onto a reserve of native trees, and it is in this space that children venture for their bush kindergarten sessions. The programme, which has now been running for seven years, was initially limited to older children, one morning a week.

In 2014 Roskill South adopted a kindergarten day model, and the programme expanded to include all students, and take place every afternoon for one hour, in addition to the Friday morning.

“It’s important to us that all the children have the opportunity to go out into the bush environment – it’s not just for the older children because we are like one big family, and the children learn from each other,” says Karen.

Karen says an important element of bush kindergarten is that it provides opportunities for the children to “make their own fun”, and thereby, direct their own learning.

“In the normal kindergarten setting, we’re fostering their dispositions to be highly motivated, self-directed learners, where they can make their own plans and set their own tasks.

“We also focus on supporting children to challenge themselves, and they know they can improve at something if they persist, practice, work with others, and try hard.”

These dispositions are powerful for children’s learning, and lay down important foundations for learning later in life.

The bush kindergarten programme provides them with another opportunity to strengthen these dispositions, with a special focus on risk-taking, self-management and confidence, explains Karen.

“In the natural environment there are constant opportunities for the children to learn to manage themselves, to develop thinking skills and learn about consequences,” she says.

Practicalities

“The area they play in is not completely fenced – we have a red rope running along the ground and they know that means ‘stop, don’t go further’.

“It’s about teaching self-management and thinking things through themselves, rather than being told ‘don’t’.”

Tree-climbing in particular provides good thinking and problem-solving opportunities for young children.

“When it comes to climbing trees and taking risks in the outdoor environment, children know what they’re capable of. They’ll only do what they feel confident to do. It’s all about managing themselves, and us trusting and allowing them to do that.

“When they’re climbing trees, children are developing resilience and the courage to participate and embrace new challenges,” she says.

Light rain doesn’t stop the bush kindergarten session – but heavier weather can see the outdoor play on hold.

“We do try and persist with the weather but it’s also about common sense. The other day it was really windy, the children wouldn’t have been able to hear us. And likewise, If there’s a thunderstorm or heavy rain, we don’t go.”

Roskill South Kindergarten embraces the ‘no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing’ rule, and children are asked to arrive on Friday mornings suitably dressed for climbing trees, staying warm and getting dirty.

A different time

Karen reports that her children’s parents are also happy about the programme, and feedback has been positive and interesting.

“Parents are really happy that their children have the opportunity for free play in the natural environment, and right from the word go they were on board,” she says.

These days, many Auckland children have smaller backyards and fewer outdoor freedoms than, say, their parents’ and grandparents’ generations enjoyed, as the standard quarter acre section becomes a thing of the past.

“Some of our children aren’t generally encouraged to be outside often, so there’s the danger of raising ‘hothouse’ children. But when we talk with parents about our own childhoods, they totally get it, it takes them right back there, and they want the same thing for their kids.

“So this is another way we can offer them varied learning environments – it’s about providing the opportunity for outdoor adventure and free play.

“We document the children’s experiences using learning stories – the children share these with their whānau, and tell their parents how much they love being at bush kindergarten. For many it is their favourite part of the week.”

Risk and challenge

Karen says the bush kindergarten programme is strongly inspired by the northern European ‘forest school’ model, but also by Wendy Lee from education consultancy Educational Leadership Project, who some years ago delivered a PLD workshop on providing risk and challenge in early childhood education.

“Wendy also introduced us to the book Too Safe for Their Own Good by Michael Unger, which explores risk-taking and the opportunities for development that come with challenges. We’ve also been really interested in the work of Carol Dweck, and how the outdoor environment fosters a can-do attitude – a new confidence – for young children.”

It’s just what happens here now. It’s part of who we are and what we do.”

Ngahere Tamariki

Amy Robinson is a teacher at Discovery Kindergarten in Whitby, near Porirua. In late 2015, she initiated Ngahere Tamariki – Children of the Forest – which sees the oldest students head into the native bush near the kindergarten for two hours every week with one teacher and one parent helper.

Like Karen at Roskill South, Amy was inspired by the Scandinavian model she learned about when undergoing teacher training – and wanted to provide something similar for her kindergarten in Whitby. She also attended a bush kindergarten workshop at the Whānau Manaaki Kindergarten Association’s annual conference, and consulted teachers from the nearby Plimmerton Kindergarten’s bush programme to learn more about what was involved.

Before establishing the programme, Amy wrote risk assessment documents and procedures for whānau, contacted the local council about potential poisons in the area and sourced special rain wear and high-vis vests for the children and teachers involved.

Amy, who grew up in Whitby and even attended Discovery Kindergarten as a preschooler herself – was already familiar with the reserves and tracks around the kindergarten and knew it was an advantage to have these treasures so close by.

“There’s a big pine forest the children really enjoy going into, as well as a bush reserve with ferns, kawakawa and other native plants,” she says.

“Whichever direction they want to go in is fine – it depends on what sort of activity they want to do – climbing or bum sliding or exploring. It’s idyllic to be able to get outside with them in an untouched environment. I really enjoy this time with them.”

She notes that bush kindergarten programmes are popping up all over the country.

Supported by Whānau Manaaki Kindergarten Association, there are at least four in the Wellington region. These include Te Papa’s Tai Tamariki, Birchville Kindergarten in Upper Hutt, Plimmerton Kindergarten and Sunshine Kindergarten in Karori.

While Discovery is lucky to have native reserve close by, other kindergartens in the area venture further – Tai Tamariki at Te Papa Tongarewa, for example, walk from their central Wellington location to reach the green belt in Mount Victoria.

Branching out

Amy took her own children into the reserve during the school holidays, and found some of her students already there, showing their parents around.

“It’s been wonderful to see the children develop a sense of belonging and ownership with the place, and wanting to share it with their own whānau too,” she says.

Amy’s also set up a closed Facebook page for the group to share photos and stories with parents and staff. She tells a story of one child who had never ventured as far as a tunnel near the kindergarten and wondered aloud if they were properly ‘lost.’ The same child has also developed a new-found fascination for pine cones.

Other children have developed greater capacities for walking and exercise, and ask their parents to take them to the bush on weekends.

Kaitiaki

The Ngahere Tamariki programme has a strong focus on kaitiakitanga, encouraging the children to be guardians of the environment. This means insects, trees and bushes must be respected and unharmed, and the children have extended this to wanting to keep the bush clean and free of litter.

“We have never asked the children to pick up rubbish when we are outside, but they often do it anyway, and bring it back to the kindergarten rubbish bin. This ownership of the environment has really been led by them – it’s amazing to see.”

In the bush, the children are free to explore as they wish, but they must remain within sight of an adult, and wear their high-vis vests. Some children like sliding down the hill, while others are interested in climbing trees and playing with ropes – with supervision.

“The children often work together to build forts, and there are a number of pre-existing forts they like to play in too,” says Amy.

Other activities include listening to stories, taking photos, drawing and making crayon rubbings of leaves.

The children also take with them a set of laminated cards to help identify birds they might see or hear.

When the Ngahere Tamariki students return to the kindergarten, they are excited to share their stories and adventures with the younger children.

“There are some great tuakana-teina relationships being formed, and I think all the children are developing leadership skills and confidence through the programme. Then of course there’s the excitement and pure fun of it.”

A groundswell of interest

Clare Wells is chief executive of New Zealand Kindergartens Inc – Te Pūtahi Kura Puhou o Aotearoa, which is very supportive of the increasing nature discovery programmes being established around New Zealand.

“We support the idea that learning environments provide a range of opportunities and experiences for children across the curriculum,” she says.

“The idea of having a full and varied curriculum is something we have always embraced through kindergarten – and it’s wonderful to see growing numbers of forest or bush kindergartens and nature discovery programmes.”

Clare says a wide range of outdoor education and free play programmes have been run for some time through the kindergarten model.

“For example, Fiordland Kindergarten has run a forest kindergarten for many years where children regularly spend time in the bush environment.

“The Southland Kindergarten Association owns some land, part of which is covered in bush where all the kindergartens in the area make regular visits.”

Attached to a growing desire to providing ‘wilder’ experiences for young children is a groundswell of interest in environmental sustainability education, and many kindergartens are also part of the Enviroschools programme.

Clare notes that another great benefit of such programmes can be seen in their ability to strengthen community and whānau connections.

“As more and more kindergartens come on board with outdoor and environmental programmes for their children, there are more opportunities for them to build relationships with the Department of Conservation, local councils and other community groups.

“I think it’s to be commended and encouraged,” she says.

Parent feedback about Bush Kindergarten at Roskill South

“My daughter has developed a fierce love of being outside. I can see this evident in her friends as well. When the teachers announced bush kindergarten time, you could barely hold them back! I have stayed with the kids during bush kindergarten sessions before, and have seen with my own eyes the ‘hunger, attitudes and interest’ that can only be developed in this setting.”

“I think the key, applicable idea here is ‘mood or personality.’ Bush kindergarten lets children feel a little bit ‘nervous’ and the kindergarten teachers affirm them in such a nurturing way that they develop confidence. The outside reserve isn’t a regular ‘kids’ space’. It is real, and raw and exciting. The kids love it, and as a parent, I love that my daughter loves to experience this every day.”

“What I love most about bush kindergarten is that children get to have an experience of being outside, exploring in nature, running and being free. In an increasingly technology-focused world this innovation is providing our children with a part of childhood that is slowly being replaced with TV and increased screen time.”

Play and Learn early education programmes

Play and Learn early education programmes have been running since 1995. The organisation runs several formal nature kindergarten programmes in Auckland and Dunedin, and provides tailored outdoor education programmes to other groups.

Deeply inspired by the Scandinavian forest kindergarten model, the Play and Learn programmes are adapted to suit the New Zealand environment and the principles of Te Whāriki.

Play and Learn also offer a range of professional development learning opportunities, including short and full-day courses for parents and educators.

Play and Learn coordinator Janina Stanka says the aim of these programmes is to foster the natural curiosity of young children.

“The most important tool for learning is neither the latest technology nor sitting in front of a board. It is our intrinsic motivation, curiosity and sense of wonder. Nature, experiencing with all senses and trusting relationships with teachers are essential,” she says.

“In some ways our nature kindy is ‘back to basics.’ We set up our shelter with tarpaulins and a pop-up tent in the pohutakawa trees surrounded by sounds of native birds and the sea. Besides a vast variety of natural materials, the kids have safe access to ropes, bungee cords, tools like hammer, saw, secateurs, potato peelers for whittling, utensils for writing and painting as well as books.”

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