Once a week, the children in the kindergarten class spend about two hours at Mt Evelyn Recreational reserve at the base of the Dandenong Ranges, Victoria.
The program, which began in 2014, was set up to engage children in inquiry based-learning in the natural world. It’s an urban trend which was sparked in Australia by programs including Victoria’s Westgarth Kindergarten, which was the first centre to offer bush kinder in the country.
Kindergartens throughout Europe and America have taken up the program in an effort to get children outside. Research shows children today are spending more time in front of screens than their parents did.
Goodstart Montrose’s early childhood teacher Rachael Foley said the aim was to give children a closer connection to the land, country and its people.
“We wanted to encourage risk taking, imagination, conflict resolution, gross and fine motor development,” Ms Foley said.
After spending many weeks attending Nature Kinder sessions, talking to the local council and discussing the project with parents, the excursion plan was devised. Ms Foley visited many sites and settled on Mt Evelyn with its clearings, bush and access to toilets.
“We got funding for transportation, bought hi vis vests and wet weather gear and the children attended dog safety programs because many people walk their dogs there and snake advisory sessions at Healesville Sanctuary.
“And we decided to go to bush kindy regardless of the weather.”
The first session was held in June 2014 and Ms Price said it had been extremely successful.
“We now have our own bus and have increased days to run once a week over a five day roster so all of the children can attend. Our children show true interest in the environment around them and we notice and recognise significant advances across the outcomes in terms of their learning and developments.”
“We are proud of our unique program and are dedicated to its continuation in to the future,” Ms Foley said. “We are on a continuous cycle of reflection and this enables us to constantly improve upon the experiences.”
Ms Foley said enrolments were up at the centre and that many parents attended the kindy because of the program.
“It’s not just about going outside and being in a bush environment. The children are learning so much and to be honest some of the most intense learning experiences happen when we’re at bush kinder,” she said.
“The children watch the change of seasons, talk about native trees, learn about birds through their calls and observe the changes to the environment. And interestingly we have less incidents at bush kinder than we do back at the centre. The children are careful, calm and really want to be involved.”
Children who play outdoors are introduced to concepts such as problem-solving, language, science and caring for the environment. Encouraging children to collect objects such as rocks, feathers and sticks is a great way to learn about patterns, sorting and similarity.