Walkabout, playing and learning outdoors

“The next day, a few children asked if they could do it again today.” Outdoor Classroom Day was such as success at one local school; they might do it every year. It was a positive news story in my local paper that highlighted how lucky my children are for the education they receive and how afraid of the outdoors education has really become. We bring our children to school as such a young age nowadays, and often in to formalised structured environments despite research and best practice suggesting otherwise.

As a caveat, I live with a highly trained Early Childhood Educator who takes the role of teachers in charge of the earliest years of education as critical to a child’s healthy development. This person didn’t read an interesting article on Facebook, or a good book on childhood development, they dedicated their Tertiary education at a leading Early Childhood focussed university to become an Early Childhood teacher because they believed so strongly in it. I take my queues on the development and education of our children from the expert in our house – I read research and things of interest, but defer to the far more knowledgeable source.

Then our oldest son was nearing the start of school, we weren’t sure what to do. He didn’t seem ready to start schooling – and the majority of his peers and extended family were embracing Western Australia’s earliest childhood offering, Pre-Kindy, as soon as possible (the age of three). We were really torn. It seemed to early, he didn’t seem ready and peer-pressure was being felt. We eventually made a call to delay his start until the ripe old entry stage of Kindergarten, still unsure if he would be ready.

One thing we both new, with his interests, motivators and drives; beyond delaying his education journey slightly; our son needed somewhere to attend school that was not exceptionally formalised and had an emphasis on play. The importance of play-based learning was not just from our perspective, but backed by educators and research. We also wanted to find a school that combined play-based learning with outdoor play and exploration – not just once a day for a special occasion, but ingrained in how they do things.

We found our solution in a tiny community school in our town. Our school is a little bit away from being mainstream. Before you ask, it isn’t a Steiner school or a Montessori school. It teaches the curriculum, it did NAPLAN testing for the first time this year, it does all the school entry exams your school (probably) does and the kids read and write and do maths (even Mathletics). It also does a few neat things some school don’t – like teaching local Aboriginal language and culture (Ngoongar/Nyoongar), learning about native plants and bush tucker and doing a LOT of outdoor learning and play. Learning outside is more than just play; it is more than just physical activity –  it makes a valuable contribution children’s health and development – and education.

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Checking out the kwort the school made

Our school has a program called Walkabout – a very much outdoor classroom day, where classes from as young as pre-primary get out of the classroom, out of the school and in to the world. The kids have to walk to their destination – sometimes covering over 4kms in a day, with older or more capable kids encouraged to help those younger or less capable than themselves. Our sons now have an impressive strolling range – which makes getting out and about easier!

On Walkabout they build shelters, light fires, walk in the rain, embrace nature, learning local history and work on their communication with each other. They takes some risks, engage in risk-benefit analysis and work their way around unforeseen problems. Everything gets recorded in a diary (literacy) so the kids can reflect and share with each other what was good and what was hard. My eldest son loves it. It is the highlight of his week.

We explore the world and look for occasions and ways of giving back to the land, saying thank you and appreciating this beautiful country.                                                                                                                                 – School website

Pre-schooling, our eldest rarely drew. Aside from his art loving mother despairing she couldn’t get him to draw with her; there were also professional concerns regarding his pre-literacy pencil skills. As parents, we backed off. Our son is not one to be forced in to anything. Now, three years in to his schooling, his handwriting is coming along marvellously, we can’t stop him drawing (anatomically correct cross-sections of yabbies are a current favourite), and he writes everything down that he can (especially regarding nature, the outdoors and Walkabout). This newly found love of drawing, writing and recording has been nurtured through play and the outdoors.

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Jack drawing yonga (kangaroos) mating in our yard

Our eldest son is only in year 1 now, but his academic development is beyond what I would have accepted as appropriate by this stage. His brother is now in Kindy as well – and loves his time at the school – the same school; and is doing the things he is meant to. A small sample size, I know – but what is most important to me, is that they LOVE school and love the way they are taught.

My eldest talks about school classrooms with “set” desks and chairs you have to sit on like they are dragons. He’s heard of them, but never seen one – and faced with the prospect of taking one on, would be a bit scared. What will they do when they get to high school you ask? Adapt. As they have to now. High school is full of labs and kitchens, different rooms and settings for different subjects, transition between areas, no set desks. They’ll be ok.

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For now, they love the play, the freedom, the subject matter. Outdoor learning leads to a greater connection with nature and both feel a strong sense of guardianship over our land and animals. Both boys can name animals by their Noongar names (and have a budding fauna knowledge (far beyond my own – insistences of, “that’s bush tucker, Dad”, on family bush walks are eventually conceded as correct, once I’ve finished Googling). This wonderful knowledge is mixing so well with the other important things, the reading, the writing and the maths.

Our children are developing really nicely – and I place a significant amount of the credit on the manner in which the school engages and educates them.  Schools only provide a small part of the puzzle of early childhood development and education – parents, families and homes take the majority of the burden and should never cede it or shirk it; but the right school system for your child’s needs is important. One that manages to mix learning, play and the outdoors so well is important to us.