Child-led, Play based Outdoor Learning & Adventure
'Nature’sCool' is an Outdoor, Child-led, Free Play-based “Nature / Forest School” which children can legally participate in “One Day” per week as an alternative to traditional “School” (with permission from their B.O.T). It is also open to Home-schoolers as a regular programme to compliment their existing education.
Safe Outdoors NZ Ltd is a small family business formed in 2018 by Luke Kirner (me). I have a background in Guiding (sea kayaking / dog sledding), but have spent recent years in charge of Outdoor Education courses in High Schools. I am now designing and facilitating an outdoor based Well being course for Huanui College in Whangarei. The second half of Safe Outdoors is my partner Hilary Cooper. Hilary is a gifted and hugely experienced Early Childhood Educator and mother of our three amazing kids. She is a master in approachability and at empowering children to help them feel valued. Our good friend and senior instructor (Emma Craig) has a Masters in Science, and was until recently, the Ranger on Limestone Island / Matakohe. Emma is a much sought after kiwi tracker, and loves to share her inquisitiveness for flora & fauna with children.
Since October 2018, Safe Outdoors NZ has taken hundreds of happy children over to Limestone Island / Matakohe through our School Holiday Programme “Limestone Rangers”. It was through this highly successful programme, alongside our own parenting, that has led to our increased understanding of the need for a “One Day Nature School” in Whangarei.
Why Child-led Free play?
Nature’sCool embraces the philosophy of Child-led Free play. This is however complimented by ‘Provocations’, that is - activities or resources introduced as an opportunity to stimulate child inquiry.
Child-led free play is becoming increasingly recognised by a more “mainstream” slice of society as being vital to child brain development.This is largely due to the amazing work of Neuroscientists and Neuroscience educators (such as Nathan Wallis in NZ) who have challenged a common perception of play as being “a waste of time”. They suggest instead that child-led free play requires a far more autonomous and complex firing of cognitive pathways when compared to parent / teacher-led structured play. The research shows that “children under the age of seven do not really benefit from parent / teacher-led structured play, and children over the age of seven only benefit from 2.5 hours per day of structured play ”. In our opinion, the links between teacher-led structured play, and teacher-led structured learning are tangible. Basically, the message the neuroscientists are trying to get across is that the brain functions required to form imaginary worlds / characters and the language development required to take on the persona of both fictional and non-fictional characters are examples of free play significantly outweighing the brain functions required to remember the name of a colour, that “Boat starts with B”, or even that 2 + 5 = 7.
What 'Child-led Free Play' looks like in Action
To be clear, taking on a "Child-led Free Play' approach does not mean that our staff are baby sitters or that the participants do whatever they want for the entire day. This is in fact, far from the truth. Staff spend the majority of the day closely monitoring activities (safety / appropriateness / inclusiveness etc) which the participants choose to enter into, however this is balanced by routines as well as optional set activities which appear during particular times of the day when the group needs 'redirecting'. Examples of this include: morning chats, afternoon chats, or a message going out that "You can start your cooking fire at 12pm, but for now you can collect your dry tinder if you like". A unique skill set is required to facilitate and monitor the many group & individual activities going on while maintaining safety and while best retaining the many advantages of 'Child-led Free play. Examples of this include: subtly introducing an activity idea that staff think will be useful for a particular participant without singling them out or being forceful, guiding a participant if they ask for help by asking them questions rather than telling them how to do it, (or by doing it for them), resisting the urge to enter into a game / activity uninvited (as this immediately alters the dynamics of that game or activity) or when allowing the participants an opportunity to resolve their own conflicts rather than jumping straight in. The participants are usually very busy in their chosen tasks, often completely removing the need for any set activities.
Why “Nature / Forest School”
As a kid I would bike down to the river after school and spend hours fishing for trout in one of NZ’s clearest waterways - Te Waikoropupu stream in Golden Bay. Now 20 years later, I can still vividly remember many of the lessons learnt on those outings. Electric fences forcing me to be big and brave if I wanted to explore the next pool, apologising to angry farmers, favourite lures lost and saving up to buy new ones, removing rubbish and dead cows from my river, crying over broken rods and lost fish, laughing at those that deserved to be lost, and during the bike ride home with a fish to show dad. I remember the colours in the long grass, gunshots from the adjacent rifle range, the dust from the road, the willow blossoms in the wind and the heat of the tarmac beneath my tyres. I was ok at school, but those memories, charged with sensory and emotional overload, I can remember far more clearly than any classroom lesson during that period, in fact I am struggling to remember any classroom wisdom. In technical terms - one might call this ‘movement for learning’ - this being the association of a memory to particular senses and / or emotions. Neuroscientists have identified specific parts of our brains associated with memory that are stimulated given different sensory or emotional functions (i.e: smell / taste, fear, joy, love). This means we can fire our children’s memory pathways on purpose. Furthermore, there is a myriad of longitudinal research that links these types of environmental interactions to quality of life as an adult.
My love for the outdoors and instincts to protect it was born on that river, but it was not only that, it helped me to discover who I was and my place in the world. I was lucky to have these natural influences so easily accessible, and to have parents who let me visit it alone. The vision of Nature'sCool is to provide an opportunity for young people to spend time in these rich environments and to gain an appreciation for the natural world and for themselves.