Yesterday I was very blessed to be part of the international Nature Pedagogy professional learning conference in Lilydale, organised by Niki Buchan (Natural Learning Early Childhood Consultant). The theme of the conference was Tracks into Nature: sharing nature-based practice nationally and internationally. Like most conferences the most important things I got out of the conference were the connections with other nature-loving child educators, and the sharing of ideas, strategies and inspirational stories. I think it is of utmost importance that all who engage in professional learning become conduits passing on this learning to others, so I am sharing my experience with YOU in the hope it brings a fresh perspective or consolidate your own existing ideas and beliefs like it did me.
We were kindly welcomed to country by Uncle Bill Nicholson, elder of the Wurundjeri people, traditional custodians of the Yarra Valley and country on which we stood (funnily enough my childhood home! Gosh it was good to be back amongst the misty morning gumtreesand rolling red earth hills).
I learnt from Uncle Bills son that stoked the fire with fresh gum leaves from the nearby avenue of lemon scented/spotted gums (Eucalyptus citriodora) that any fresh gumleaf will do, wet ones work best, and that the Cherry Ballarat ( Exocarpos cupressiformis ) provides the best smoke! He also described the same love of coming back to country as I felt returning to my childhood home -the feeling of tiny particles of water touching his face that only the autumnal mists of the Yarra Valley give. The Wurundjeri name for the Yarra River is Birrarung ‘River of mists’. Uncle Bill was so welcoming of us to his ancestral lands, knowing we were all here to celebrate nature, to ensure younger generations are engaged with it, learn to understand it, love it, and protect it. Those who live here (regardless of if you are Wurundjeri or not) are all custodians of the land. Those visiting from other country (not Wurundjeri, whether or not it is overseas) are given a temporary ‘passport’ by its traditional owners (the smoking welcome ceremony) and must behave in a way to ensure the land (read ‘nature’ as it includes sky, air, water etc) remains healthy.
I was so excited to finally stand by and touch the monolithic sculpture above outside the Lakeside campus atrium (Box Hill Uni, formerly Swinburne Uni). This sculpture by Chris Booth represents the Wurundjeri story of a meteorite sent crashing to the earth at Cave Hill (nearby hill of limestone, now quarried and turned into a residential estate), by Bunjil the creator spirit (usually in the form of Eagle-hawk), in his anger at the people for breaking his laws. The big boulder on the ground is from this quarry site, and represents Bunjil in the land (Hamacher 2013:105-107). This is sacred ground we are standing on, and the stories connecting people to nature are right around us!
Words and thoughts from this first day of the conference which I take with me:
Time – we must work in Nature time! Long exposure and immersion in nature, let the children be engrossed and complete their creativity or engagements with nature. Forget the 40 minute timetable – what do we teach children if we say the timetable is more important than their learning?
Immersion with natural elements – yes this means with water (standing in puddles and ponds or rivers, field trips in the rain), using fire, being exposed to risks and dangers but teaching children how not to fear them but be safe, aware and confident around them. Educators and adults need to be aware of feeling wet and cold, these are important sensations. “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing” (origin of this quote is not known to me, it is more or less the. Actionable philosophy in Norway according to my sister who lives there, but Lee Mann mentioned it again in her workshop with Nel Ward, Journey to the Bush-how the Lobethal Community Kindergarten in the Adelaide Hills developed their connection to nature, http://lobethalkgn.sa.edu.au/ . Sometimes the appropriate clothing for children is bare feet!
Transient art – its inclusive, impermanent, reflects nature, shows that we don’t have to make permanent edifices and imprints on this planet, but be part of its cycle of creation and deterioration.
Mixed ages – stepping back as the educator and letting the elder peers become leaders and role models, nurturing their younger friends. In Riverside Cottage Nursery (http://riversidecottagenursery.co.uk/), Luke Addison has up to 35 children from 2-12 free to wander around acres of woodland, river, allotments without staff.
Children are able to make their own risk assessments- (Lee Mann & Nel Ward; Luke Addison, Niki Buchan all referred to this). Luke Addison trusts the years spend with the older children, getting to know them, exploring the property with them that they know the dangers and how to be dynamic risk analysts (thinking on the spot, weighing up risks and choosing to work within their limitations). “Children are capable and know their own capabilities better than anyone”. Luke showed with his fallen tree video (I will share this soon!), how by stepping back and simply observing, we can see the children are capable and confident, they create strategies to problem solve, give each other warnings and advice (dynamic risk assessing), work together politely and with respect, and make things meaningful to each other. The OHS procedures and policies we are all familiar with in our kindergarten and school organisations aren’t really appropriate as they were developed in an employment setting (not school, and not for play). There is no legislation in Australia or education policy which states you cannot use fire or water or loose rocks or sticks in schools.
Pathways to participation model as a tool for child educators (Harry Shier, http://www.harryshier.net/)
Children’s places vs places for children (Rasmussen, 2004) – by designing/creating spaces for children we impact on children’s lives as they react with the world around them completely differently than adults. We must give them opportunities to create spaces in fluid, organic, dynamic ways and avoid the ‘schoolification’ (overformalisation) of their world (Gallagher 2013).
Unstructured play – the value of play in the Primary sector has been lost. “Play is a legitimate use of time in schools as this is how children learn” (Barb Jones, principal of Upper Sturt Primary School, http://www.uppersturtps.sa.edu.au/). According to Piagets theory of cognitive development, 0-2 year olds engage in sensory play (tactile, oral exploration of the world around them), 3-7 year olds develop symbolic play and work out real versus fantasy, 7-11 year olds enter the concrete operational phase where they are less interested in symbolic play and more into rules and structure and create social play. Importance of rough and tumble play in boys.
Bio-learning (Both Inside and Outside Learning) is the approach adopted in Upper Sturt Primary School, developed over time with the children and educators and parents and now working closely with Natural Resourse Management to connect the bush village to an adjacent heritage bush site.
Kamana wilderness awareness teaching (Jon Young, https://www.wildernessawareness.org/adult-programs/kamana), although American-based there are great strategies for learning about the natural world around you which are really engaging for children and adults, and are great ways of teaching the science of nature through games. Perhaps we can develop a more appropriate versions with our children about our special Australian bush, it’s Flora and Fauna and seasons and cycles?
Big change doesn’t happen quickly (Lee Mann) you need to develop a culture of reflective practice, and whole community, engaging all educators, children and their parents, asking for feedback and criticism, avoiding stagnant practices, and following the triple Rs: reflect, respect, relate. Once these kinder kids went to nearby primary schools, parents who adopted and contributed to the philosophy of their kinder kids learning strongly advocated for the rights of the child at their primary school, asking for a “loose parts shed” so children could continue unstructured play.
Educators as researchers – the year long inquiry by Lobethal Community Kinder into How can we support children to become highly skilled curious noticers? The role of us adults is to support children, help them develop their executive functions (e.g. Impulse control), give children different opportunities, reflect on why you are doing something, is it for the child? Lobethal kinder have data and evidence to show how nature is so important in improving children’s learning, skills and development. Non-verbal children in indoor kinders suddenly couldn’t stop talking in the bush setting!
Children as researchers – if we can teach them to observe nature, collect data (memories, understand patterns and cycles in nature, record in journals or images or just remember), then back indoors (days you can’t go to the bush) you can work through this data, analyse and synthesise it, display it, and in the process be teaching children all the skills they need. What better way to help their understanding of science, maths, research than to use their real experiences!
8 aboriginal (read natural) ways of learning -Annabelle Brown from the Steiner school Aurora in Bowral, NSW (www.aurorasteiner.nsw.edu.au) and Aunty Rachel Buckley (Wiradjuri Aboriginal cultural advisor) showed how the 8 aboriginal ways of learning (developed in 2009?) by James Cook University and the NSW Department of Education is a natural way of learning for all humans and uses nature connection. Story sharing (opening hearts and minds, building rapport between humans), learning maps (pictures and pathways of knowledge), non-verbal (mimicking, mentoring, hands on practice), symbols and images (sand stories, numeracy, literacy), land links (using lessons from nature we are connected to), non-linear (different ideas coming together to innovate, thinking laterally), deconstruction/reconstruction (we work from wholes to parts), community links (local viewpoints and real life purpose in our community)
Hamacher, Duane W. 2012-13. ‘Recorded Accounts of Meteoritic Events in the Oral Traditions of Indigenous Australians’, Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Vol. 25, pp.99-111. [http://www.academia.edu/8146774/Recorded_Accounts_of_Meteoritic_Events_in_the_Oral_Traditions_of_Indigenous_Australians]