Early childhood nature programs in Australia
Updated: Jan 31, 2021
What makes Australian nature play different from the Forest Schools of the northern hemisphere? Here is one perspective:
Learning in the outdoors is not new internationally. ECE Nature Programs originated in Scandinavia, Europe and the United Kingdom based on experiential play-based outdoor programs. In Scandinavia, outdoor learning has been practiced since the 1950s, where the importance of children having contact with nature from an early age is highlighted (Williams-Siegfredsen, 2017). Specifically, the UK programs can be traced to early years’ educators from Bridgewater College, Somerset who visited Denmark in 1993 to observe nature kindergarten practices (Knight, 2013). The observed practices were adapted into what is now commonly known as Forest School and since establishment this approach has increased rapidly and become widely accepted across the United Kingdom. Williams-Siegfredsen (2017) states “the term ‘forest school’ was created in England to describe the Danish practice of children in early years’ settings using the outdoors every day, all year round as part of their pre-school education” (p. 9). In Australia, nature play has gained momentum, originating in the state of Victoria, and has now spread to New South Wales (NSW) and other states and territories (Christiansen et al., 2018; Elliott & Chancellor, 2014).
Whilst Australian parallels with forest schools can be drawn, the diverse cultural and historical contexts of early childhood nature programs in Australia are very different and distinct. The Australian context has its own unique approach which is supported by First Nations People’s connections to land and the national curriculum policy, Belonging Being Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) (DEEWR, 2009). A challenge for practitioners has been to translate and adapt pedagogies and principles from a forest school approach to the Australian context, both broadly; including culture, environment and educational policies, and more specifically to the local community. As Gambino, Davis and Rowntree (2009) maintain, it is important to caution against taking cultural traditions and practices from one country to another when it is not a part of that cultural identity. The original Scandinavian movement was aligned to ‘friluftsliv’ (fresh air life) (Williams-Siegfredsen, 2017) which is somewhat different to the cultural identity reflected by the Australian bush and beach settings (Elliott & Chancellor 2017), or Ngahere kindergartens in New Zealand (Kelly & White 2013) and the forest schools of the United Kingdom (Knight 2013). For example, Australian programs have developed as integral to nationally approved early childhood programs, rather than add-on educational programs (Christiansen et al., 2018). Each program reflects the centre community, and for some programs spending periods of time in a designated place may be the case, or walking to a destination with playful interludes along the way is preferred. Either way, children and practitioners are responding to local contexts, conditions and influences (Christiansen et al, 2018).
We argue strongly, the Australian based programs are distinctly different from the international Forest Schools where training is centralised and includes “the adoption of a set of codified practices” (Christiansen et al., 2018, p. 64). Both Canadian and UK Forest School Associations appear to determine the practices and specify forest school certified training as essential to conduct a program. This top down approach is in direct contrast to the bottom up approaches currently evident in Australia led by inspired and well qualified practitioners who engage with professional networks in the field (NSW EYNC). In Australia, we are building on what has been done overseas and translating to what is appropriate to the local landscape, community, First Nations People’s perspectives, the flora and fauna, the guiding policies and practitioner qualifications.