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Bush Schools: Connecting To Nature

issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Niki Buchan
issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Niki Buchan

Clockwise from above: Making leaf boats; Exploring in macro; Bug catching in the forest.

issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Niki Buchan

Many adults think back to their childhoods with fond memories of being outdoors, roaming freely, with long periods of time playing on the farm or beach, in the creeks, fields and forests, being out from sunrise to sunset. This freedom and time to connect with nature is so often denied to children today and is to the detriment of their health and our planet.

In response to this, Australia has seen a range of bush schools develop across the country. Also called forest schools, these educational programs are set outdoors, so children can connect with nature through play and exploration. Bush schools encourage children and educators to be in the natural Australian environment on a regular basis as part of their school day.

Most bush schools currently run for one morning a week for two to three hours, although some have increased these sessions to whole days and multiple days every week after experiencing the benefits. You don’t need to live in the bush to go to a bush school. Bush schools are found all over the country, including in urban settings.

Usually no toys or resources are provided, although some schools may give out a range of tools such as pencils, saws, cameras and binoculars. Children are encouraged to be imaginative in their play while educators step back to allow a perception of freedom. The educators do not have a specific lesson plan but they observe, assess, reflect, analyse and may plan for future experiences outdoors or in the classroom leading on from the children’s interests.

Bush schools came about in Australia because adults realised that children were becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. With this disconnection comes a decrease in knowledge and understanding of nature, and the concern that future generations will not have the desire to protect the natural environment.

Australian bush schools are loosely modelled on the Scandinavian forest schools. Traditionally in Aboriginal culture, children and adults spend long periods of time together in the wild natural environment. Many bush schools value the nature knowledge of our Indigenous Elders and community.

Many children are struggling to cope in traditional schools. The confines of classrooms are displaying an increase in challenging behaviour, mental health issues and a decreased engagement in learning. Concerned adults searching for answers became aware of nature-based practice and its associated benefits. In bush schools, children are free to roam and explore where there are no walls or time constraints to act as barriers to the mind and body.

Bush schools are trying to recreate the special memories that many adults have of their childhoods, that many children today aren’t getting. Memories of walking barefoot on the warm sand, discovering marks and trails left by lizards and kangaroos; of wading into the cool water of a creek, making paperbark boats that would float, sink or topple over; of gathering warm rocks to dam the water to make a pool for swimming; of climbing over rough fallen logs searching for tiny slaters and other bugs while keeping a wary eye out for bull ants and snakes; of building cubbies with sticks and fallen branches to shelter from the hot sun; and climbing into trees, as high as you dare in order to find a special sitting spot to just sit and think in the rocking branches.

These are the freedoms so often denied to young children today, who tend to be constantly supervised. It is important that adults hold onto their own fond childhood memories of freedom in nature and strive to provide similar opportunities for their children.

Research shows that children have never been as safe as they are today, but the perception is that the world is a dangerous place, particularly the outdoors. Many parents and educators are becoming increasingly risk-averse and concerned about litigation, so they aim to keep their children as protected as possible. This brings risks of its own, maybe not physical, but mental, emotional and social risks that may lead to later physical risks.

Many children today suffer from anxiety, stress and other mental health issues, and struggle to regulate their behaviour. Research in Australia shows that suicide rates are increasing. There has been a huge increase in children under 18 being prescribed anti-depressants, including many children under the age of five. Nature acts as a healthy and inexpensive antidote to the stress many adults and children face today. Children who play regularly in natural environments are more active, an important benefit to consider with the current increase in obesity and the long-term health issues linked to this.

Many children spend long periods of time in education and care setting buildings not optimal for human development. It is the duty of parents and educators to ensure children have regular opportunities in nature. The practical implications may seem a burden but as advocates for children, we need to do the best we can for the children in our care. This should motivate educators to overcome the hurdles and drive forward a more nature-based philosophy.

Risk, or the perception of increased risk, in the bush may be an inhibitor to adults. It is helpful to see risk as good; it is about uncertainty, challenge and opportunity. Children’s actual childhood is at risk because adults are trying to keep them as safe as possible, instead of as safe as necessary. Bumps, scrapes and bruises are a rite of passage in childhood; they are learning injuries. At greater risk is the child who is not exposed to risk, unable to self-assess. Having a risk-taking disposition is a great advantage in life, as the child is then more likely to attempt a difficult maths sum or try a new jigsaw.

It is helpful to look at hazards children may encounter as good or bad hazards. A good hazard is one that has benefits and the risk is obvious to the child. An example of this is climbing a tree – children are aware of the height and there are many benefits to tree climbing. A bad hazard is one that has no benefits to the child and they are unable to see the risk. The duty of the adult is to eliminate the serious risks posed by bad hazards, while encouraging the risks and challenges offered by good hazards. Children and nature are unpredictable, so it is important that adults are alert, aware and continuously assessing hazards and risks dynamically as they occur to ensure safety.

Occasional concern is expressed at the impact children have on nature. But children are elements of nature, and as such have a right to be there just as native animals are. Nature is tough and able to withstand a fair amount of child erosion. I find it useful to weigh up the long-term consequences to children and nature when assessing impact. Taking photographs of a site over time will allow children to see their impact and reflect on how they can reduce this to preserve their sites.

Bestselling author Richard Louv refers to nature as ‘Vitamin N’ and says it should be prescribed on a regular basis. He also coined the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’, saying, ‘If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.’

Children are born with a natural affinity for nature. If they spend quality time in it, they can read and understand nature and the elements. With this knowledge comes a love and desire to protect the natural world.

issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Niki Buchan

Clockwise from above: Unguided play; Taking risks tree climbing; Exploring beneath the canopy.

issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt
issue8-bush-schools
Photo by Robyn Rosenfeldt

RESOURCES:

  • Children in Wild Nature (Niki Buchan, Teaching Solutions 2015)
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Richard Louv, Workman Publishing Company 2010)
  • Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Richard Louv, Atlantic Books 2016)
  • How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (Scott D. Sampson, Mariner Books 2016)

BUSH SCHOOLS:

Niki Buchan has worked with both adults and children in consultative, naturalistic and sensorial environments for 35 years. www.naturallearning.net.au

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