By Liz Evans
So, what happens at a kindergarten that proudly proclaims to have “no toys, no tools, no art supplies”? How do children respond to being outside with no equipment whatsoever, apart from a portable loo?
Just a few kilometres north of Melbourne’s bustling CBD, deep in the heart of the Darebin Parklands, a group of preschoolers is gathering. They’re here for Westgarth Bush Kinder, a nature-based kindergarten program inspired by Indigenous traditions, Australian folklore and the increasingly popular forest schools of northern Europe. Piloted in 2011 by teacher and parent-of-four Doug Fargher, with local community support and government funding, this outdoor early childhood initiative was the first of its kind in Australia. Now, there are more than one hundred bush kinders in Victoria alone.
So, how do children respond to being outside with no equipment?
“They arrive with a bag full of snacks and spare clothes, pop their things down on a rug and then head off into the space,” explains Fargher, who helps facilitate some of Bush Kinder’s four weekly sessions. “Some children start climbing their favourite tree, some go and eat with a friend, and some find a spot that’s changed since they were last here. We’re in a public park, so change is constant. A wattle tree might be in bloom, or there might be a different birdcall. And then the play begins. There’s a lot of excavation involving sticks and rocks, followed by collection and sorting of what’s been found, whether it’s flowers, leaves or stones. Often children
create their own visual patterns—like mandalas—with their findings, or they make mud cakes.
“Lately there’s been a lot of Star Wars play. Obviously this is culturally informed, but when it comes into the natural setting it becomes very imaginative and social, and each child contributes as the storyline builds, and props and equipment are gleaned from the bush.
“If it’s been raining, there’s a lot of jumping off rocks into puddles. And there’s always lots of tree climbing.”
It sounds spectacularly simple, and in many ways it is. Children have played out in all weathers since the beginning of time. But, in recent years, things have changed, and the average Australian child now spends less than two hours a day outside, which is, somewhat shockingly, less than your average maximum-security prisoner. What’s going on?
“Most parents have beautiful memories of being outdoors as children, so we know it’s good for our kids,” says Fargher. “So, yes, why aren’t we getting them out there?
Research shows it’s down to two main things: First, we’re now super-informed. We have access to loads of information that our parents didn’t, and we’ve become scared of nature. A frightening story about someone falling out of a tree is going to have enormous reach these days. Second, we’re micromanaged, so we tend to micromanage our kids’ lives, too. We schedule in dance, swimming, music and sport, but we don’t schedule in free play in nature, throwing sticks in a river or climbing a tree.
“Research from all across the world now shows that kids who spend time in nature are smarter. They have advanced motor skills, they’re more sociable, they’re kinder to each other and they’re physically fitter. Individually, they become more self-confident, because they challenge themselves in a natural environment. They constantly push themselves, and are continually making decisions about whether or not to drag a heavy log, or climb a higher tree, or jump from a big rock. They learn to take risks and begin to realise how skilled they are, which makes them feel successful. For example, when a child climbs a tree, they have to think the whole time. It’s not like a climbing frame where the distance between each bar is the same, the textures are all identical and the diameter of each bar is set. With a tree you have to listen for cracking sounds, you have to assess the thickness and texture of the branch, and you’re constantly observing and thinking and using your senses.
“As well as that, groups of children become more cohesive outdoors: boys and girls are more relaxed with each other, flighty kids settle down and become more engaged, and timid children find their voice and become more active. The benefits are really plain to see.”
Fargher has been teaching for many years, including a stint at a Steiner school, where the educational philosophy places a priority on outdoor experience. He says he was always more comfortable teaching outside, and this is what inspired him to investigate the possibility of establishing Bush Kinder five years ago.
“In my heart I’d always known that nature was the best place for children to learn,” he says. “So, with the support of the local community, I started looking for a large outdoor space where the kids could get wet and muddy and play with natural materials. At the time, some shifts were happening in government funding and regulations that meant there was more receptivity to new ideas within the department of early childhood education. So, together with two other parents, I advocated for Bush Kinder to get going. We had support from Play Australia, politicians from a whole range of political persuasions, academics and educators, and we had lots of help from early childhood specialist Dr Sue Elliott. It was quite extraordinary—we really felt like pioneers breaking new ground.”
Europe’s first forest schools appeared in Sweden and Denmark in the 1950s, and they now enjoy a strong presence worldwide—especially in the UK, where teachers scour op shops for shrunken cashmere jumpers to keep the children warm, and woodland pockets of inner London are being taken over by tiny children in high-visibility vests. But here in Australia, the relationship with land extends back thousands of years, and Fargher is keen to emphasise this important distinction.
“Westgarth Bush Kinder takes place on Wurundjeri land, where people have been learning from nature for 60,000 years,” he says. “Educators like Rudolf Steiner advocated the benefits of nature, but Indigenous peoples have always known about them. So, really, this approach to education is more of a rediscovery for us.”
Finally, how can parents without access to a bush kinder or forest school integrate the program’s principles at home?
“It’s just a matter of scheduling it in,” explains Fargher. “If you have a baby, go for a walk, stop under a tree and give them time to look up beneath the canopy. We’re so often aware of our babies engaging with cultural constructs, like the ceiling fan in a cafe, but not so much the tree. So put in the time to stop.
“Toddlers like to look and pick things up, so just go at their pace and let them explore. Make sure they have waterproof pants and gumboots, and let them go through puddles and put their hands in the water.
“With older kids, the social stuff is more important, so just chat to people and find out where the best trees are, whether for climbing, fruit picking or playing among the roots. My kids are aged between six and twenty-one, and they have a favourite tree with a bouncy branch. We call it the Bouncy Tree and it’s better than any trampoline. A walk to the Bouncy Tree is still a really important thing for the whole family, because of course it’s so much more than bouncing on the tree. It’s about the shared experience.
“And don’t let the weather be a barrier. Just dress appropriately. Parks are always empty in bad weather. Parents forget how delicious rain can feel.”