Bush kinder program: taking the classroom and learning outside

Imagine walking through your local nature trail and seeing a group of kindergarten children playing and exploring. Some are climbing a tree and playfully hanging on a branch. Some are jumping in puddles and splashing muddy water all over themselves. Some are squatting to look at insects, while others are collecting sticks and making ‘bonfires’. Those exploring their surroundings are bringing items of interest to the educators and asking questions about what they have discovered.  

Image provided by the author – ‘This is a typical scene at a bush kinder program.’

A high-quality kindergarten program aims to build connections with the local and wider community, to create deep connections to children’s learning. These connections not only refer to relationships but also to places in the community.  

There are numerous benefits to bringing children’s classroom and learning outside, as nature: 

  • invites children’s curiosity and improves exploration 
  • opens up the world of wonder, imagination and creativity for children 
  • simultaneously calms and excites the mind. 

The origin of bush kinder 

The forest school, or nature play program, originally derived from Denmark in 1952. Since then, countries around the world, including Australia, have adopted the concept due to its rising popularity and research-based evidence of its benefit to children’s development and wellbeing.  

In Australia, nature play is also known as bush kinder (Elliot & Chancellor, 2014). The underlying approach of bush kinder is for children to have unstructured play in natural environments—such as forests, nature trails and beaches—where they can simply be present, engaged in nature and spend time outdoors. Bush kinder is also driven by the belief children have the right to be engaged with nature and  open-ended settings allow children to be the driver of their own learning (child-led learning).  

Nature play at Highgate Early Learning Centre  

In our nature play program, children learn to assess risk, use and learn about safety precautions and explore, discover and investigate different flora and fauna. This creates deeply imaginative play, forges strong friendships and increases children’s interest in the natural world. Children’s curiosity is apparent in the questions they pose to our teaching team: 

Ray: How can you tell if this is a stick or a branch? 

Caitlin: Why are the birds being so loud? What are they saying?  

Charlie: Why are there so many bugs living under the big rocks and wood? What are those bugs called? 

The team found being outside, immersed in nature, helps to initiate such rich questions and investigations for the children.  

The benefits of being outside extend from the children to the teaching team and the families. Educators gain a better understanding of children’s skills and interests and can build stronger relationships with them. Families get a better understanding of their child’s capabilities, including risk management, which is essential for engagement with outdoor natural environments.  

The importance of risk assessment 

As children gain more exposure and experience outside, they begin to transfer their past learning to new situations, developing their risk-management skills. In our setting, the teaching team supports children in taking and managing risks. We know children are competent and able to take care of their own safety and the safety of others. This is reflected in some of the things they say when we are out and about: 

Lucy: Don’t touch the mushrooms; we don’t know if they are poisonous or not. Just look at them from here. 

Jamie: I know not to climb on the branches that are smaller than my arms, because it can break and I can fall and hurt myself. 

Experts say children are more likely to get hurt falling out of bed than falling from a tree (Figueiredo, 2016). Children possess an intuitive ability to make their own risk assessments, as they will usually only climb as high as they are comfortable or as high as they are prepared to fall. We need to give them the right tools to make good judgements and they will.  

Considerations for running a bush kinder program 

Implementing a successful bush kinder program requires more than just letting children go outside and play. Educators need to constructively plan its underpinning pedagogy and have logistical preparations in place (e.g. weather updates, emergency and evacuation policy and essential items). Risk management, as mentioned earlier, is also an essential element, as the teaching team will need to understand logistical and operational details while adhering to national regulations (State Government of Victoria, 2020).  

Teachers and educators should reflect on their role when children are engaging in bush kinder. It’s not just about actively supervising children but also about adopting a ‘co-investigator’ or ‘co-player’ role and guiding children in investigating and discovering the answers to their questions. Teachers and educators also need to assess when to jump in and guide the learning or stand back and allow children to make discoveries for themselves, drive their own learning through real-life interactions and firsthand experiences.  

Another important thing to consider is engaging in bush kinder programs is a great way to build a direct and tangible connection to Country. As Wiradjuri man Reverend Glenn Loughrey from St Oswald Church at Glen Iris puts it, ‘Country is like a book. As with books, everything to cultivate our minds can be found on Country—be it stories, information or culture’. 

References 

  • Elliot, S., & Chancellor, B. (2014). From forest preschool to bush kinder: An inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(4), 45–53. https://doi.org/10.1177/183693911403900407  
  • Figueiredo, R. (2016, June 6). Today’s kids are three times more likely to end up in hospital because they fell out of bed rather than out of a tree. Daily Mail. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3626687/Today-s-kids-likely-fall-bed-tree.html  
  • State Government of Victoria. (2020). Bush kinders. Education and Training. www.education.vic.gov.au/childhood/providers/regulation/Pages/bushkinders.aspx  

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ECA Recommends: Learning with Nature – Mud Kitchens

This module examines the principles behind the design of a mud kitchen. It also explains how you can give children empowerment and autonomy in their outdoor landscapes. Using videos, recorded conversations with children and real-life case studies, this module brings to life the benefits and learning opportunities of using a mud kitchen within your setting. This is an introductory module and does not need any prerequisite knowledge of the topic.

Darren Halim

Darren Halim is an Early Childhood Teacher with strong interest in bush kinder programs, inclusion support and empowering educators to drive positive change. Darren has worked in variety of roles from educator to educational leader and director. He is also part of the Academics Tutor Team at The University of Melbourne, teaching Organisational Behaviour subjects. Currently, Darren is teaching at Highgate Early Learning Centre as the 4-year-old Kindergarten Teacher.

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