Tuesday, 22 March 2016

A comment from a colleague

Hi Ruth,


You know me and my technological prowess (or should I say – non-prowess!) Hence, I reply to your usual email address and not to the blog – but you’re always welcome to add it to your blog - if you wish.


What a wonderful time you would have had at the course! It just brought me back to all the things we used to do as kids – and all the things we learnt. Sure, there were some cuts and bruises, but that’s all part of the learning. 


I think your last paragraph was SOOOO powerful: “Now it might have been easier or less messy and less risky to give us a worksheet about fairy houses, or a colouring in activity. What are your thoughts?”


I have nothing against worksheets and colouring in activities every now and again, but imagine how much REAL learning is missed if the outdoor activities are omitted! I really hope that all children get to learn in the outdoors, just like we did when we were kids. We took it for granted in those days, didn’t even realise how lucky we were to be given those incredible learning opportunities!!!


Big hugs,


Zdena Pethers

Curriculum Advisor

Educational Services, Nirimba office

Ph. 0412 460 278

Email. zdena.pethers@det.nsw.edu.au





From: noreply+feedproxy@google.com [mailto:noreply+feedproxy@google.com
Sent: Sunday, 20 March 2016 3:20 AM
To: Pethers, Zdena
Subject: nurturingnature


Saturday, 19 March 2016

Renewed energy

It's been an amazing few days on the Central Coast with Claire Warden participating in the Nature Pedagogies Course. It's difficult to quantify the value of a few days with people of like mind, a highly respected facilitator and access to amazing educators in a highly regarded early learning setting. Alkira Learning Centre in Wamberal was an inspiring space to learn in. Thank you to Claire and her team for re igniting my passion for learning in the outdoors. 

The photos in this post kind of sum it up for me. We were taught the skills of making twine from grasses, how to lash elements of nature together to create something (mine was a house for fairies) and expected to demonstrate our knowledge of the lines of enquiry that would come from the activity. 

In the two hours that it took to gather materials, make the twine, problem solve how to put it all together and sit in gorgeous sunshine in a leech infested field I learnt some really important things.

It takes time; big chunks of it, uninterrupted and without interference to allow for flow (that place you go where there's the perfect balance of challenge and calm). 

You have to be resilient, because things don't always work out. It's important to celebrate the fails as well as the successes. I had to keep trying, trial various methods, ask people's advice, see what others were doing and problem solve the whole time. When I lost a piece of twine I'd made I felt like giving up. It took me half an hour to make 30cms of the stuff! 

It's the perfect place for collaboration. I showed Leanne how to make twine and she in turn showed me how to weave a small basket with grasses (I've yet to try my hand at it but will certainly give it a try). 

Playing, creating, making and simply being in the outdoors provides enormous learning opportunities that can form a line of enquiry. In my case there was deep consideration of engineering, the science of strengthening and placing materials to support a structure, mathematical knowledge of shape, measurement and number. Not to mention the social and linguistic aspects of the endevour. 

Now it might have been easier or less messy and less risky to give us a worksheet about fairy houses, or a colouring in activity. What are your thoughts?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Do you still know me?

I'm attending a Nature Pedagogy Course on the Central Coast with Claire Warden, and just wondering if my blog still knows me after all this time?

Monday, 21 July 2014

More on Aboriginal Perspectives. An interview.

As I've mentioned before, I'm very interested in how the concept and ethos around natural learning and connecting to nature is relevant to Aboriginal communities. I'm looking for insights, trying to ascertain the connection and importance that having time in a natural space can contribute to a child's connection to land, to place and to their Aboriginal heritage. I interviewed Lee Hinton, an Indigenous Employment Consultant with Australia Post. I was introduced to Lee through a family contact and he very graciously gave me his time to share his insights. 

Lee wasn't brought up on the traditional land where his ancestors trod. He grew up in suburban Sydney. His Aboriginality was something that his family nurtured and was pronounced in his roots, but it wasn't until he reached his teenage years that he discovered what this meant for himself, for his identity. Being raised in an urban, multicultural society he described the pressures of juggling modern day as having a large impact in how he connected to land, to place. "The connection to land and place  that urban Aboriginal people experience is vastly different to that of those in more rural places"

I asked Lee if he had a natural childhood space that was special to him growing up and he told me about a large oval, a broad open expanse where he had the freedom to be himself, free of restrictions. He shared this place with his mates. "We liked playing sports, building cubbies and sometimes just laying around on the grass". I was reminded of the many times overseas that I saw young children close to the earth, laying and lolling about, not doing anything that an adult might interpret as constructive or educative. Children having the freedom to 'just be'. I recall watching one of the children at the John Brotchie Bush School flat in the grass, hands outstretched and head down in a patch of sunshine. Being still is so important, especially when it's voluntary. 

I asked Lee if he felt it was important to give Urban Aboriginal children an opportunity to connect to nature and he agreed that it's vital. "It's vital to connect to nature, as it helps in the indigenous development of their own beliefs as a child, in understanding their connection to land and to place. Country kids pick it up because they are more isolated from all the distractions in an urban environment. They come to terms with who they are and their surrounding area. Aboriginal children need to learn with all of their senses. They need to be able to touch, to feel. They need to hear the birds and see. They might even be able to taste some things" I get a sense that in providing urban Aboriginal children with opportunities to connect to nature we have a part in developing their identities, their sense of where they belong in their Aboriginality as well as providing them with an engaging learning environment. 

Lee shared that he found the class room a restrictive place. He told a story of a time when he was struggling at school. There were family pressures and the learning from books, at a desk, the overhead projector shining onto the screen, was hard for him. He didn't feel a part of the lessons. He had the courage to talk to his teacher about it and this very wise teacher listened. He took the boys outdoors and had them play active games, sports and the like. Every now and again he'd stop them to ask a question from something they needed to learn or know. He combined active play with academic learning. It gave the boys a break from the stifled aspect of classroom life, and I imagine it freed their brains for the sort of thinking they needed to do. "He engaged us" Lee said. How refreshing! I was touched by the benefit this would have had not only for Lee and his classmates but also for the teacher. "Yes, he was ahead of his time that teacher, I wished I could have had him for longer". That teacher was open to listening, and would have learnt from his students as much as they learnt from him. 

I asked Lee what he thought about a nature preschool that incorporated Aboriginal Learning, and asked his advice on how it should be done. Often we meet this challenge in tokenistic ways, like incorporating a bush tucker activity or listening to dream time stories as one off experiences. He suggested that elders hold the knowledge of their community and that this involvement and endorsement would help to build community trust. Without this, communities are more likely to hang back, not participate. He also reiterated that just having the opportunity to connect to nature, play in bush settings and learn with all of their senses was an important part of building Aboriginal identity and engaging their learning. 

I'd like to thank Lee for his time, his insights and his personal stories. It all helps to build a picture of what this could mean in our own local contexts. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it too. 

Bye for now. 

Friday, 18 July 2014


Once we got back from Bush School and the children were settled back into their preschool activities before going home, Rebecca sat with me to share what she learned along the way since establishing the pilot. We had a long conversation. Lisa, one of the staff, and Sylvana my colleague were a part of it and I'd like to share here some of the issues we discussed. 

I asked about parent support for the project. "I first broached it as a short ten or fifteen minute blurb at a parent information night. I began by asking parents to remember their own childhoods and how play in nature would have likely been a big part of their daily lives. I then explained about the many benefits of connecting children to nature, that in giving them a love for it there is a hope of sustaining wild places into the future, but also the many educational benefits. Resilience is an obvious one that comes to mind. Parents are often telling me that their kids cry at every little thing. Bush School can help with that. It toughens them up". 

"Were there any challenges that you faced with parents attitudes?" I asked

"At the onset I had eighteen parents express an interest and I had to choose twelve from that group for the pilot. I wanted it to be a diverse group. Some parents put great value on academic achievement, see children in stereotypical fashion, or are quite anxious about things like keeping children warm and protected."  

I believe that Rebecca wanted to find ways to show the parent community that the benefits of outdoor learning can outweigh fears, anxieties and long held perceptions about children and education, but in a way that is non threatening and open to listening. I heard Rebecca at the end of the day approach parents as they entered the preschool to share with them what their child had most enjoyed, or achieved, or shown a particular interest in. Her availability and openness would go a long way to supporting parents in their parenting decisions and in relieving any concerns they have about this approach to learning that has been introduced. Rebecca was excited to share how some families now go to the bush school site with their children on weekends, taking picnics, building tepees and climbing the trees. This is an exciting development considering that previously they made a beeline for the climbing equipment at the other end of the park, not considering the wild spaces to be of any interest or benefit. 

Rebecca explained to me that over time, more and more parents became interested and she felt the need to extend the opportunity to more children. She saw substantial benefits for children, parents and staff in a very short space of time. Resilience was again mentioned, and an increase in children using their imaginations and resourcefulness, a change in parent attitudes towards the concept and a difference in how the staff teach. "We used to take activities, we just didn't have the confidence that the patch of bush would be enough to hold their interest, but it didn't take long before we realized that there was more than enough, and we had to teach by the seat of our pants. We learnt to be more spontaneous in our teaching." Sometimes they take items to provoke an interest or encourage exploration, such as binoculars, bug catchers, magnifiers or a weather thermometer, but generally they find that the natural world offers itself up for children with very little need for extra 'stuff'. 

As we were chatting a parent came by the office to ask about her child's day, being that this was his first day at Bush School. She was worried that he pushes the boundaries and takes risks. Rebecca was able to share with this mum stories and an honest account of his day, including how they worked with him in his tendency to push boundaries. His tree climbing was an obvious skill and interest and his ability to measure risk gave some reassurance. 

I asked about ratios and staffing and Rebecca aims for a one to five ratio, which includes three staff and the inclusion of interested parents for a group of nineteen children. It's a tiring day for staff because of the need to be constantly vigilant, scanning and checking. Their radar is always on. The children learn through what Lisa termed 'executive function' which she explained as being that state of affairs where you learn that your actions or decisions have a consequence, so you learn it well. Like the kids that chose to slosh in puddles without gum boots. They had wet feet for the day and that is a learning opportunity. The same thing can be said for the staff. They learn as they go, but it's exhausting. 

The conversation then moved on to the boisterous boys. Rebecca said that if you take the walls away, there's nothing to bounce off. The body physical opportunities for active boys is fantastic in a natural space. "The children have learnt through experience that if they get too rough, someone gets hurt. Accidents were more common in the beginning but now there is real control in their play." Lisa also commented on the empathy that has developed as children see first hand what can cause an injury or hurt to a friend. 

Rebecca talked about their philosophy of the environment being the third teacher, and the teachers job is to provide it. There is a real balance demanded in the teaching of when to step back and when to be involved. It is the children who come up with the ideas, and it is the children who are finding happiness in nature and cin connecting to it "how do we save our planet if we've never had anything to do with it?" Rebecca asks. I agree wholeheartedly.

Lisa, who trained with 'Bush Connections' at Randwick TAFE had an interesting story to tell, which I would like to leave you with. She remembered a little boy at the preschool who was very knowledgeable about creepy crawlies such as insects and spiders. He always had information to share with the group, was able to explore answers to questions and showed a great interest in the natural world. One day she found a spider in the garden. She captured it, secured it in a jar and brought it to the child, assuming he would be excited and interested. She was amazed at his response. He put his hand up, shook his head and loudly stated "No, no. I don't need to see it. I have read about it in a book!"  

Yes book learning and the availability of electronic information is fantastic! But let's give children the gift of finding joy and excitement in the three dimensional world of nature. This YouTube clip explains that it is our love of nature, not information of its loss that moves us. Please have a look and share: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=BvIdwOEzreM

I wish to thank Rebecca and the staff at John Brotchi for welcoming me and my colleague Sylvana to Bush School. It was a great way to put many of my uncertainties aside, to put in place one of the last pieces of the puzzle. The puzzle won't be completed until I see it happen in Western Sydney, so keep tuned in. I hope to see it happen one day soon. 

If you'd like to know more about John Brotchie Nursery School here is a link to their website

An Aussie Bush School in Sydney

Being a part of new and innovative ways of doing things can be a difficult journey. From the outset I had my doubts about how all this can work in our Australian educational culture, our political climate and within community expectations. The issues that troubled me were what often led to my reflections within the blog as I teased out the various perspectives that I'd been introduced to, the ways of doing and ultimately what that meant for me as a possible leader in the concept. At times I was discouraged, not by what I saw and experienced overseas, but by how it was received back home in Australia. Comments of 'yea but. . . ' constantly ringing in my ears, the glazed over look you sometimes get when the people you're talking too don't get your passion, and comments that it's all too visionary, to 'out there' for your average early childhood setting. Other times I would meet with equal passion, but increased fear of it being too hard, or too risky. 

So it was with all these things buzzing around my head that I visited 'Bush School' at John Brotchie preschool. I was hoping for more answers to the puzzle of how to make it work. Here was a preschool with yet another visionary leader, an educator who has the courage to take a leap based on sound judgement, current theory and research as well as an instinct for what is good for children. Rebecca Andrews is the principal of the preschool and also the recipient of a scholarship to study the ideas of forest schools in Denmark. The bush school that she facilitates began with an idea in the form of a pilot and has grown to become an integral part of the preschool ethos and community partnerships of John Brotchie Preschool. 

The children arrive and get 'geared up' for the day. This involves a process of preparing for the weather, depending on current reports from the Bureau of Meteorology. They wear high visibility vests and matching hats. The children transfer their food for the day into their bush school backpacks which are sturdy, roomy and designed for the purpose. Each pack includes a bottle of fresh water. If it looks like rain children will be kitted out in protective clothing and boots. The staff wear huge back packs that include such things as first aid, spare clothing, moistened towelettes, fresh water, tarps and the most important thing of all, hot chocolate. 

We begin the walk to the bush site. We are in a busy metropolis, distinctively urban but also industrial. The site is about a mile away and the going is slow. The staff allow children time to discover things on the way and use it as a learning tool. With new children joining the group, road safety and reminders of how to stay safe while out and about were consistently being raised. A large drain was pointed out with messages of keeping the streets clean for the sake of sea creatures followed up with rubbish collection along the way. According to Rebecca some of the industrial sites that we passed have become more waste aware from the presence and diligence of preschoolers picking up the lunch waste workers have thrown into the street and putting it in a big canvas bag held by one of the educators. 

We arrived at a patch of bush. It didn't look like much. A bit of grass bordered by a combination of native trees and weeds. There was a centrally placed stump and obvious perimeters that are all important in deciding on an appropriate site. It needs basically a clearing, a central meeting place and clear perimeters. What the children do with what is on offer is up to them. 

The children were given the freedom to have a snack if they wished or go play, within the boundaries. Many disappeared into the scrub, some scurried to the two climbing trees on either end (and they climbed really high with the support of educators and peers) and some went on an exploration to the far end of the boundary. A few stayed on the tarp to eat and socialise. Two boys went straight to the stump, which was to be their Star Wars space ship and looked for sticks to use as sabers. One child said, 'No, wait, we have to wait for Jake'.  I recalled Jake being a part of the conversation at the beginning of the morning when the three boys sat down together, explaining that they were going to 'talk about what we're going to do at bush school'. Once he was ready the three of them played Star Wars for a long time, imagining and innovating fixed and loose natural items to support their play. 'Their language needs to be pretty sophisticated as they play' Rebecca later explained, 'as they need to make it really clear to each other what they are using and how to use it. I've seen a real development in the children's expressive and receptive language'. 

I found a tangle of weeds and commenced to make myself a shelter. A little girl eventually approached and asked what I was doing and began gathering stick supports and long blades of grass to use to bind the pieces. A group of children began to show an interest until we heard the blast of a whistle. This is only used as a drill and was an important part of the morning to let the new children know what it meant and what to do if it was sounded in the case of an emergency. 

We were then ready to move on to the next adventure, Base Camp 2. A short walk along a grassy path and we discovered a wide sandy clearing. Here we ate lunch, were reminded of the perimeters and commenced to play again. The play here was quite different. Many dug in the sand, a few children created art with sticks and leaves and many followed the path back to the exercise tree. 

Some of the boys rumbled and played rough. I was amazed as I saw four boys with heavy sticks playing at being in a fight. Their movements were skilled as they swung the stcks in wide arcs, pulling up at the right moment to not make contact. They mimicked tumbles and wrestled, at one stage a few on top of one. Nobody was hurt, nobody was overly rough, but they were able to use their large muscles in refined and purposeful ways as well as keep their emotions in check. How wonderful to give boys such freedom. In a preschool setting this is often discouraged with a view to children's safety. Here, it was a part of the fabric of the place. 

I climbed the exercise tree and watched from my perch as children challenged themselves to negotiate the process of climbing to a branch, sitting on it as they clutched a higher branch and swung themselves to the ground, all smiles. A long twisted branch along the ground was perfect for balancing on, and another nearby tree had a sloping trunk that allowed children to climb to a hight that gave them a sense of accomplishment and danger. 

When it was time to return home, we met around an unlit camp fire made of a pyramid of sticks. We had hot chocolate and marshmallows and chatted companionably. The final activity was that of getting ready for the trek home, finding bags, packing water bottles, folding tarps, ensuring we left the place as we found it.

On the way back many people from the community waved and smiled hellos and were greeted by the children. At one of the industrial sites a lady lent out of a first floor office window, called out and asked the children what they had been doing at bush school today. This is a regular occurrence as the community get to see the children being visible within their local environs and have some small part in their day. 

On our return I was able to chat with Rebecca and her co-worker Lisa. I'll post my thoughts on that very enlightening conversation a little later. 

Monday, 23 June 2014

A conversation with The Aboriginal Transition to School Network

I have been back from my study tour for nearly two months now. I am often asked by friends, family and colleagues who haven’t seen me for a while "So how was your trip?" and it's always hard to answer, hard to quantify. I feel like I've only scratched the surface and yet I was meant to come back with extensive knowledge. I know that I have been gifted with the insights, wisdom and knowledge of the many people that I met and worked with while I was overseas. Now I am focussing on what I can learn from my colleagues in Australia. I am not only gathering my knowledge base in this respect, but also sharing what I have learnt with various groups and individuals. I am a believer in shared knowledge. We have a lot to offer each other as long as the lines of communication are opened and facilitated. Last week I presented to the Aboriginal Transition to School Network that meets in Western Sydney once a month. This group was formed some years ago to support each other in the work that we are doing with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children and students. While the main focus is in transition to school, the group collaborate in many other initiatives. As we share and learn from each other we are supported in our work. It is made up of community members from a variety of agencies and organisations and is facilitated by the Department of Education and Communities. If you would like to know more about this group please email me on ruth.garlick@det.nsw.edu.au. I was invited to share what I had learnt on my journey, so I started with the usual PowerPoint and discussion points. I raised some of the questions that puzzled me on entering into this venture. "What about literacy and numeracy when kids are outdoors every day? What about the safety and risk issues? Is this image of a child in the fire pit too provocative?" I ask these questions to hopefully encourage others to consider their own viewpoints in what I have seen to become topical issues in the concept of Nature Kinders. I have my own answers, developed from being overseas and from extensive reading, but I'm always interested to hear what others think. Well I didn’t need to present really. I found this group to be very interested in the concept and able to articulate their own perspectives, especially the Aboriginal members of the group. I wish to thank all that contributed for sharing with me. The stories you shared were inspiring and touching. Much of the conversation was led by the early experiences in nature of the Aboriginal people in the group. As I was showing images from overseas I was being told “That takes me back to my childhood. That’s the sort of childhood that I had”. The image of the fire pit came up and I shared how this is quite confronting to many Australians. It seems so very dangerous. This little boy is placing a log onto the fire that he was responsible for collecting, hand sawing into the right size and placing on the blazing fire. He’s about four, maybe five. The group stirred. “That’s exactly what we did when we were kids. We gathered around a fire. It was important to us. We even played with the fire.” To the Aboriginal members of the group the image of the fire pit reminded them of the significance of these sorts of experiences when they were growing up in their communities. The sense of belonging, being in a circle around the warmth and sustenance that a fire brings, and what they learnt from being involved in making it, cooking by it, even playing with it. I showed another image and got this contribution: “You don’t need to worry about the literacy and numeracy. Look at those kids, there’s lots of potential for language, for counting and stories” I shared the experience at one of the centres with worms and slugs and dividing a feast equally amongst the chooks. Yes plenty of opportunity, as long as it is utilised. When I asked the group to tell me about their special outdoor place when they were children, stories were shared. “There are photos of me laying in the groove of their old cow. They’d get up every morning and milk her and I’d be sleeping on the cow.” I pictured a bundle of baby wrapped and secured on a gentle old cow, the warmth and sweet scent penetrating through whatever was covering her as her mum got on with the tasks of the day. “Our special place was the river. It was a place where everybody went after school. There was a big mud slippery slide just like in those photos, and no adults. We went there as five and six year olds. There were lots of skinned bums and knees! The river was also for washing and all the family was involved in carting washing to the river. We also carted water from the river to the house.” I asked about the sense of place that these outdoor spaces provided. “Our sense of place not only comes from where we are from, like those country towns in the fifties. It comes from where we are now. You don’t have to be ‘back home’ to have a sense of home and community. It can be done where ever you live and it’s about the people you are with. It’s also about where your parents came from.” On my study tour I saw children being gathered into the community of the preschool. This occurred around the fire, or around a talking mat, sometimes it happened in a circle in the forest as we sat on logs or grass. It was done in small groups and as a large group. The concept of Nature Kinders has community at its very core. On two occasions I saw older children coming back into the places of their early childhood and their teachers and parents commented on how special it was for them to revisit the site. A sense of place lies within all of us, but I suspect that it has even greater significance for Aboriginal people, perhaps to regain their connection to the land. From my own perspective, I can’t bear to drive down the street where our house was. What was once an old timber clad house build by my father and grandfather, a lawn and flower gardens, an extensive bush paddock, including the dried up dam that cradled three enormous willow trees, has all been replaced by medium density town houses. My place is gone, but my sense of place is a strong as ever, as evidenced by my unwillingness to drive down the street and bear witness to its destruction. We spoke about many things during this meeting. How kids today depend on electronic gizmos to get through the day, how adults seem to feel the need to constantly hover, to entertain or to protect, when as kids they were left to make their own fun, to look out for each other and while adults were available if needed, they were not depended on for entertainment. We discussed the panic of black outs, tv and electronic devises not working, and the possibilities of a what a few hours being out the back door can bring. “I didn’t hear from them for two hours”. But the hard thing is it takes a black out to get them there. The partnership that occurs between educator and parent in Denmark was a topic of interest. “I love that educators in Denmark are seen as second parents so that there is joint engagement and partnership in the education of children. I think that here there is sometimes a disconnect between our families and schools” “Aboriginal preschools are seen as an extension of the family. That’s why we are called ‘aunty’.” There was also some discussion around the benefits of taking learning outside “Outdoor involvement in preschools and schools is keeping Aboriginal kids at school. Special days and outdoor learning engages children and encourages attendance, which they need because children seem to be disengaged from school these days. We need to be exposing children to places and activities that engage them and enthuse them.” From this discussion I was left with the impression that there are many Aboriginal perspectives to be considered in respect to the concept of Nature Kinders. If you have anything to contribute, please leave a comment on the blog. I hope to reflect more on this as I meet with others into the future, and continue my reading. Thank you again to the participants in this discussion from the Aboriginal Transition to School Network.