Playgroup in the rain

Learning the joys of the bush ...
Learning the joys of the bush ... Photo: Getty Images

On cold winter’s days, most of us have looked out the window, seen sheets of rain coming down and told our children: “We’re not going out today, it’s too wet, and too cold.” There is a growing movement, however, that encourages us to pull on our gumboots and raincoats, and go outside with our kids, regardless of the weather.

And if you are part of Westgarth’s Bush Kinder program in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, there’s definitely no such thing as staying inside when it’s wet. The kinder operates rain, hail or shine. “We say there is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothes,” says Doug Fargher, the director of the kindergarten.

Forest schools and nature kindergartens have been running in Europe, Scandinavia and the UK for more than 50 years. The last couple of years have seen increased interest in bush kinder and bush playgroups in Australia, with programs running in most states. Fargher notes that Bush Kinder, which operates in parklands near the “home” kindergarten is also strongly influenced by Indigenous Australian understandings of the environment and landscape.

Bush Kinder draws on the natural environment to inspire and guide the children. “We don’t have fences or markers around the site, but we do have natural boundaries,” Fargher says. “When the children go into the space we don’t bring in any toys, tools or art supplies. We just use what nature provides.” This affords children the opportunity to be creative while also increasing their awareness and understanding of the environment around them.

This mindfulness and awareness of the natural world is something that Lee Trew has instilled in his daughter, Blaise. Trew runs Bluegum Bushcraft, a program in NSW that helps children, teens and adults feel more at home in the wild. Trew intentionally makes time and space for Blaise to explore nature on her own terms. “When we’re outdoors with her, we never interrupt her when she’s gazing at something,” he says. “We respect her silences and take our cues from her for what she wants to look at next.” Allowing Blaise to guide her own experiences means that for Trew, his daughter’s connection with nature is much deeper than if it were adult-led.

The slower pace of nature itself often leads to significant shifts. “I find that it doesn’t take long to start to see a profound difference in children,” Trew says. “Even the most ingrained city kids undergo this transformation pretty quickly.”

Research has found that play in nature improves children’s moods, increases resilience and reduces stress levels. It also helps children to connect with each other. But what about those of us who don’t have a bush kinder nearby, or who don’t live near a national park or bush land? In a 2008 interview Richard Louv, author of Last child in the woods: saving our children from nature-deficit disorder said, “When I talk about nature, I am not just talking about wilderness. The people who study this actually use the term ‘nearby nature.’ Nearby nature can be the clump of trees at the end of the cul-de-sac or the ravine behind the house. Through a biologist’s eyes, those places can seem insignificant, but through a child’s eyes that ravine can be the whole universe.”

While the positive impact of nature is well understood, it can take time for children to settle into a natural space that doesn’t offer obvious entertainment. “Sometimes the connection to nature doesn’t happen straight away,” says Fargher. He says that children attending Bush Kinder often start the year playing familiar structured games such as hide and seek, and may take a few weeks to embrace the space and realise the possibilities of nature. “It’s often on the fifth or sixth time that children really settle in and you’ll see them sweeping out little rooms underneath scrub, putting twig babies to bed, or lugging a log over to a fork of a tree to make a see-saw.”

Fargher’s enthusiasm is obvious. “For me as an educator, it’s just a beautiful thing to watch,” he says. “Bush Kinder is my favourite day of the week, and it’s the children’s favourite day too.”

Have your children ever attended bush kinder? Or what are your thoughts on the program? Leave your comment below.