Article for Education Central by Kelly Warren

Ten tamariki and two Kaiako are out in the bush a few kilometres out of Papamoa when  one of the children, Max, taps me on my leg and informs me, “We have to look after the plants or they won’t be there another day and then we won’t be able to come back aye Kelly.” My heart warms with his wisdom. His respect and his understanding of the sacredness for this place that we have connected with, and that we now have come to claim as ‘ours’ to protect.

It was not an easy journey getting our Forest School running, five or so years ago at New Shoots Papamoa Children’s Centre we started planning for our bush program, yet it never quite came to fruition. Fuelled by our centre’s involvement and commitment to the nationwide Enviroschools program, in October 2019 the first group of tamariki embarked on what our community has named “Kura Ngahere/Forest School.”

When we met with our whānau to speak about this idea, they spoke, unprompted about their memories from their childhood. Eyes sparkled as they retold their childhood stories of exploration and adventure. It appears those memories were driving their desire for their children to be a part of our program. And that is, I think, at the core of the ‘why’ behind our programme: that we as a community recognised the decline of our society’s connection to nature, remembered our own experiences, and wanted this for our tamariki.

There were many lessons from Kura Ngahere. I learnt about the joy this program brought to the tamariki. The same spark and joy that their parents shared, was so very tangible when our tamariki neared our base camp. They quickened their steps (for many, running was the only option), their voices rose, and their laughter and what can only be described as joy echoed through the bush.

I was reminded of the idea from Bone, Cullen and Loveridge regarding everyday spiritual moments. They suggest that these moments happen all the time, yet “such moments are often fleeting and even as they are recognised, they are fading” [1]. There is something about nature (as one of our Kaiako spoke of) that is ‘good for your soul.’

“Adults admire their environment; they can remember it and think about it, but the child absorbs it. The things he (sic) sees are not just remembered; they form part of his soul.” [2]

Perhaps it’s the sounds, the stillness, space, textures, light, the changing temperatures,  the unhurriedness, the movement and most importantly, the time. It struck us immediately, the pureness of the time we had together. Our small group of ten tamariki and two kaiako.  No interruptions, no paperwork to complete, the only agenda was to ‘just be.’

I learnt that nature holds the perfect incubator for each child to be truly able to be who they are. To come to the forest without having to change. To find their passions and follow their own investigations and wondering.

“Outdoors holds many yeses for children. It is a place for many roles; the climber can climb, the dreamer can dream, the creator can create. It really is a space and a place for everyone” – The Heart School [3]

For Sasha it was twenty minutes whittling a stick with a potato peeler as she asked me to sit with her, we chatted about her world, “this is like Mum uses for kumara.” Her questions “Why do you know Māori Kelly?” and her simple yet extraordinary pondering on the day “I think this might be my favourite day in the whole wide world.”

For Joshua it was engineering an elaborate device out the tarpaulin ropes, a few sticks and a couple of bungee cords. He spent his time inventing, testing out alternatives, failing, problem-solving, and re-imagining; speaking to himself in whispers “this will work this is going to work I think”.

For many of these children I have worked alongside them within the centre for almost a year, yet the Kura Ngahere environment opened up the opportunity to truly be present and to have uninterrupted time to observe. This idea that being present in the moment is crucial to the formation of relations is not a new one.

I learnt how remarkably kind-spirited Rex was and that he had a superpower for mediating and diffusing conflict amongst his peers. I learnt that Jack could be a generous listener and a caring and supportive friend. Most significantly, I watched in awe as, over time, Max, a boy who struggled to be heard by his peers within the confines of centre life, was finally listened to.

It’s been a few weeks from when our Kura Ngahere stopped for Christmas break, and as I called into this centre just the other day Max (who in a few days is leaving New Shoots Papamoa for his school journey), came up to me, the words tumbling quickly out of his mouth,

“Kelly, Kelly do you remember?”

I wondered and thought before he blurted out…

“Kura Ngahere,… do you remember”

“Of course,” I replied, “how could I forget”.

I am adamant that our tamariki are deserving of this experience. My hope for our tamariki and Kaiako in early childhood centres across Aotearoa is that they are afforded these opportunities to connect with and care for nature so that they too will never forget.

About Kelly Warren: Kelly Warren has a Master of Education, is an early childhood teacher and programme developer for New Shoots Children’s Centres.

[1] Bone, Culley and Loveridge (2007).  Everyday Spirituality: an aspect of the holistic curriculum in action. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, volume 8, number 4 .

[2] Montessori, M.  (1988).  The Absorbent Mind.  Oxford: Clio Press

[3] The Heart School. Hands on and hearts in nature toolkit. Into the forest we go; guidelines for a forest program.

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