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Outside in: The brave new world of bush kinder

As hard as it might be, tell your little ones to defy Taylor Swift and go back into the woods. Forest preschools (‘bush kinder’, in Australia) are taking off, and offer benefits for intrepid toddlers and teachers alike.

Though only recently established in Australia, forest preschools have been a staple of heavily wooded, ever-progressive Scandinavia since the 1950s. We don’t do it quite like the Swedes do; they tend to favour as much of the outdoors as possible for their children. In contrast, preschools like Westgarth Kindergarten in Northcote, Melbourne, allow their toddlers three- to four-hour stints in the great outdoors weekly.

It’s quality, not quantity, that matters. “The important thing … is that it’s regular, it’s ongoing and more often than not children are going to the same space”, Dr Sue Elliott, senior lecturer in early childhood education at the University of New England, said. She explained that by frequenting the same location, children can build on their unstructured play scenarios. “It’s been suggested that it usually takes about six weeks of regular visits for the group to settle into more sustained, engaged, dramatic play [and] investigation of the landscape,” she said.

Nature education and play for preschoolers is one of Elliott’s key research interests. In co-reviewing the Westgarth Kindergarten Bush Kinder Pilot Program, she described the concept as “excellent”, primarily because it encourages physical activity. “We have 25 per cent of children obese or overweight,” she said. Other key advantages Elliott mentioned were the development of gross motor and risk-management skills, and a nature connection. This last point is of particular interest to her, as she says sustainability teaching in early childhood education has a way to go in this context.

“If we’re really going to engage with sustainability, then we need to do things with a focus on critical pedagogies,” she maintained. “It’s very easy to do the lovely sensory things about ‘how does the tree feel?’, and hug the tree, and to investigate different animals that you might find from a science perspective, but we need to take it a step further.” Along with sustainability lessons, another constructive upshot of bush kinder is its ability to mitigate the impact of overuse of technology on young bodies and minds, Elliott noted.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Others cited by international researchers referenced in Elliott’s review include, “increased confidence, motivation and concentration, increased social, physical and language skills, [and] deeper conceptual understandings and respect for the natural environment.”

In addition to its positive outcomes, Elliott was keen to emphasise that unstructured play, included in the governmental Early Years Learning Framework, can encompass intentional teaching. “There’s a range of diverse ways that [educators] can be involved in intentional teaching,” she said. “It might be opening up a tablet … to investigate a piece of skeleton you might have found or it might be holding a child’s hand when they balance on a log for the first time.”

Whether teaching intentionally or not, educators also reported positive effects from nature-immersed education. Elliott quoted several in her review. One said bush kinder offered “an opportunity to push myself”, while another claimed it breathed “new life in[to] my teaching”. A different educator focused on the intensification of his relationships with the children after spending “more time sitting and chatting” with them than she would otherwise.

Unfortunately for these inspired educators, bush kinder isn’t mandatory, though incorporating natural elements into teaching is strongly encouraged under the National Quality Standard. Bush kinder is, however, becoming more mainstream as, over the last 10 years, “we’ve moved away from synthetic outdoor spaces to more natural sorts of play spaces”, Elliott said. “We’ve also begun to incorporate more natural elements in our indoor play areas, whether it’s pot plants, baskets, shelves, bark or twigs.” The estimated 150 bush kinder programs across NSW and Victoria at present – as compared with just Westgarth’s in 2011 exemplify this transition from artificial to natural learning environments, yet Elliott says bush kinder isn’t for every preschool and community. “It depends on the interests and the dispositions of the educators involved as to whether they see potential in that,” she said.

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