Nature’s classroom – the rise of outdoor-based education

16 October 2016

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, less than 8 per cent of children in Australia play outside every day. Shocking, isn’t it? Coupled with the fact that in 2014 only 41 per cent of children in Queensland aged five to 17 years had sufficient physical activity, according to the chief health officer for the state, these statistics make for grim reading.

But, perhaps outdoor-based education can help.

Popular in countries such as Canada and Denmark, “Forest schools” are now becoming increasingly popular in Australia. They get children in the great outdoors, using nature to develop their confidence and self-esteem and build new skills.

One such initiative is the “Creek Kindergarten” program at the Ananda Marga River School Early Childhood Centre in Maleny. Having started in January of this year, around 11 to 15 children aged over four years are enrolled in the program, which runs three days a week.

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Katchia Avenell, kindergarten teacher and trained nature pedagogist, shared a typical day with us: “We gather for a snack at around 9am to bring the children together, then pack our bags, put on our boots and hats and head on down to the creek. Once at the creek, we set up our portable toilet and put out our yarning mat. We gather in our yarning circle to Acknowledge Country and pay our respects to our local nation. The children love to lead this! 

“We then share our thoughts, look at the change in our environment (tree branches, water flow, etc) and discuss safety,” she adds. “Then we are off for exploration and play. We have a box of tools and another box that keeps our firewood dry in wet weather. We climb trees, jump over rock formations, swim, light fires, explore the water ways and swing from vines.”

The children also make soups or hot drinks on the camp oven and use the tools to fossick for stones, build shelters or make art. “It's incredible what the children make and find,” says Katchia.

She adds that there is an extensive amount of research that highlights the benefits of outdoor play, including physical and cognitive development for children. “Allowing the children to explore the space as they see fit allows them to develop their depth perception, muscles and whole body in preparation for writing. It is a fabulous pre-literacy skill. It allows them to work in groups and with people they normally wouldn't in a defined, routined space. Likewise, we don't have fights over toys or activities – the space is so open the children can move as they please.”

And it’s not just pre-schoolers that can benefit from outdoor learning. Mandy Potter is co-owner of Starting Strong, the Gold Coast’s only all outdoor pre-school and early learning classes. As well as offering pre-school classes for three to five-year-olds, Starting Strong offers early learning classes, for children aged 15 months to three years, and infant classes for children from birth to 15 months.

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“The early learning or toddlers’ classes run for around an hour. In this class the parents (or sometimes grandparents) attend with the child and learn about teaching their little ones while at home,” Mandy says. “We incorporate songs, crafts, fine motor skills and physical activity to all classes. The infant class is a shorter class (30 to 40 minutes) and focuses on baby sensory and an early love of literacy through stories and finger puppets.

“What sets us apart from other kids’ programs on the coast is not only that we are set up outdoors but also that we are structured and lead by a qualified educator with over a decade of early childhood experience,” she adds. “When trying to find a program like this two years ago for my daughter to attend, I just couldn't believe that there wasn't one in such a city with a large family orientated population.”

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They also run “Forest school Fridays” for their pre-schoolers, where they explore a different new natural play space each week. “These sessions, although very popular in Canada and Europe, are only just starting to get popular in Australia,” Mandy says.

The government is also trying to push more of our youngsters back outdoors to play. Nature Play Queensland offers special Passports to an Amazing Childhood to children so they can record their exploits and be inspired to try new outdoor play activities.

So, the next time your child wants to slob in front of the television or computer, encourage them outside instead. They’ll be amazed at what they might find.

To find out more about Nature Play, and to register your child for their free “passport”, visit the Nature Play website.

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Written by

Kerry White

Kerry is the Senior Writer for Kids on the Coast and Kids in the City. Kerry moved to Australia from England in 2013 with her husband and two daughters. She worked as a sub-editor in London for seven years before she had her girls. She now calls the Sunshine Coast her home and is making the most of its glorious weather and beaches. She enjoys baking, especially when she has a glass of wine in hand, and is a part-time Psychology, Criminology and Justice student. She also shares her home with two cats and her daughters' imaginary dogs.

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  • Guest - Clint Bauer
    Great story guys! What I do is nature-based play and movement for kids and I'm a Nature Play QLD provider. We have some free community events coming up in November and December all about more nature play for kids, so we'll let you know the details soon :)
  • Guest - Kathryn
    Wow. My four kids would have loved this when they were younger. They will be venturing on a four week Outdoor Education program out near Blackbutt in Year 10 (with Grace College) where they hike, pioneer and other activities. My kids can't wait to get out there and explore.

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