It’s a helicopter parent’s nightmare: a class of pre-schoolers running free through the bush doing whatever they want.
At bush kinder the children play with sticks, jump in puddles, climb trees, scramble around logs, dig in the mud and all the things that risk-averse parents usually say no to.
And research says it’s doing their mental health, physical health and education the world of good, in addition to building the next generation of nature lovers and the environmentalists of the future.
Ballarat’s Brown Hill Kindergarten pioneered bush kinder under its educational leader Christine Sullivan, and every week the kinder pupils spend one of their four-hour sessions in a large tract of bushland along the Yarrowee River a short walk from their centre.
Only the bare essentials are taken to their bush site: a trailer containing a portable toilet and tent, tarpaulins, a ball, binoculars, butterfly nets, magnifying glasses, bug catchers and a few clipboards and crayons.
The rest is up to the children’s imaginations.
The children are hard to miss as they run through the bushland, especially in winter, all wearing their bright red waterproof pants, gumboots, colourful coats and fluoro vests.
Although they think they’re hiding in the bush and free to do whatever they want, the reality is that their vests allow staff to keep an eye on who is where, but they are careful not to intervene in play.
Weather is of little consequence, with a class-set of waterproof overalls on hand for wet days and parents ensuring gumboots and coats are a must for bush days.
“There’s no inappropriate weather, only inappropriate clothing,” Ms Sullivan said.
“We actually find the children play differently depending on the weather. On a really nice day they are calm and spread out, on a windy day they are very active and on cold days they play in groups.”
Bush kinder is about so much more than unstructured fun.
“Bush kinder comes from the forest school movement in Europe which has shown benefits in connection with nature, resilience, risk taking, using imagination and creating opportunity,” Ms Sullivan said.
“Even things like children these days have issues with long sightedness because they are used to small yards and using electronics close to them so they don’t have the ability to see longer distances.
“They find it much more calming when they are not constantly overloaded.”
Research shows that children spend more time indoors, in front of screens and participating in structured activities with an associated rise in health problems including anxiety and obesity as children miss out on spending expended time outdoors.
For children with special needs, the impact of green, unstructured play in nature is particularly strong.
Teachers follow the children’s lead in what they are interested in and build extra educational elements in to the play, or explore ideas more back in the kindergarten.
”The risk is just coming here and having a great day, but we have to extend the learning that happens and incorporate in to everything else.
“For example we look at physics. We might be more comfortable talking about biology and the bush around us but we can extend their understanding talking about rolling (logs), pushing, forces, see-saws, sinking, motions and movement.
“For children to gain an understanding they have to have rich experiences to spur that understanding.”
For some children the unstructured play is daunting at first but Ms Sullivan said they quickly adapt.
“When we first came here it was quiet interesting because, particularly the girls, liked to do cutting and pasting and had difficulty coping with the fact it was so unstructured, so we put in clip boards and crayons which helped them, but quickly they started using them for maps and to record things.”
At the moment the Brown Hill pupils are fascinated with birds, so there is much discussion about birds, silence when birds are calling, and staff take a book about birds down to the bushland for children to refer to.
Children also watch for signs of the changing seasons, with two species of wattles heralding the coming of autumn and spring, and Ms Sullivan said a recurring theme every year was children discovering tree sap, and talk about how indigenous people used the land.
“We talk a lot about the Aboriginal use of lands and once, after discussing a story about symbols and signs, the children sat in the dirt and used sticks to make them and that’s how they were originally done,” Ms Sullivan said.
Bush kinder also helps build independence with children responsible for taking their bags to and from the bush, getting dressed and ready to head out the door, and come up with their own games.
They are capable, confident, competent learners … we need to have high expectations and if you have high expectations they will perform to those.Brown Hill kindergarten teacher Christine Sullivan
Group dynamics also change in the great outdoors.
“We’ve had little ones who are perhaps quiet at kinder and don’t have much say, down here they’re a bushman and their position in the hierarchy changes as everyone goes to them for help and advice.”
“We find they are calmer down here and more inclusive.”
Before bush kinder starts each year, staff reassess the area and do some training with the new group of children.
They know they can’t go past a plastic tape that is wound out around the area to act as a fence, they practice using the portable toilet and have an education session about dogs.
“One thing we consider is the issue of dogs, because we are in a public parkland. We always have the Responsible Pet Program run a session before we start so they know what to do if they are approached by a dog, and those same rules go for snakes.”
Ballarat Grammar has recently introduced its own bush kinder session and two other Ballarat kinders are running a pilot program at Pax Hill.
Doug Fargher, who introduced bush kinder to Victoria, said while it was inspired by European forest kinders, bush kinder was uniquely Australian.
“What we have done in Australia is produce something for Australian conditions that builds in a real connection with our educational framework,” he said.
We need people that really care about the environment, and if that care comes from knowing and loving it as a child then getting children out in to nature is crucial.Bush kinder expert Doug Fargher
Mr Fargher said it had taken just one generation for the pendulum to swing from an outdoor lifestyle to an indoor one.
“In one generation we’ve seen a shift from where most parents would have been outdoors in nature as children, to their children not spending time outdoors.
“Parents have a nostalgia, knowledge and wisdom and say being outdoors is good for children. It’s not that they are stopping children going outdoors because it’s a bad thing, parents still want children to be out in nature, but the reality is the world had changed and that they are very busy and children are very busy.
“This generation of children don’t have free time.”
Risk-averse parents also fear the danger of children having free time outdoors.
“The world has changed for parents: some of that fear is justified, but a lot of it isn’t. The world seems a more dangerous place now than it was then.”
Mr Fargher said children who spend more time outside were more social, more inquisitive, got along better with each other, cared more for nature, had better general health, coordination and balance, and were better at problem solving.
“Their mental health and wellbeing, everything is better and children are happier if they spend more time outdoors.”
And the young nature lovers of today could become the nature guardians of tomorrow.
“All the people who are leading the way in conservation, like David Suzuki, are speaking up and saying the reason they are the people they are is because, as children, they spent extended time in nature. We need people that really care about the environment, and if that care comes from knowing and loving it as a child then getting children out in to nature is crucial.”