Nature Play in Urban Landscapes
Updated: Sep 15, 2021
How do you do “out the gate” nature play when your service is 5km from the CBD of Australia’s biggest city?
When I joined Explore & Develop Annandale 6 years ago, I was super excited to have the freedom to leave the service with my class and venture out into the community on walking excursions whenever we liked. One thing I struggled with was embedding nature play in an area that didn’t have much, if any, ‘natural spaces’. There are lots of little parks, a fenced-off mini-pocket of ‘regenerated bush’, a tiny reclaimed ‘wetland’ and a thin track of green that leads us to Blackwattle bay and the Glebe Foreshore.
Our little school is a 56 place, 0-5 years, long day service, on a rooftop, in Sydney’s Inner West. It is high density, inner-city living at its best! Many of our families live in apartments or little houses with tiny yards. We recognised that it was so important for these children to experience unstructured play in natural spaces and be developing a positive relationship with the natural world.
It took me quite some time to get my head around how I could practice nature pedagogy with authenticity. My heart wanted to be in a bushland setting with a beautiful creek that was visited by mobs of kangaroos. This was nowhere near the reality of our context. It was time to reframe Nature Play.
The shift for us at E&D Annandale came when we began to think about place-based pedagogies. Critically reflecting on the context of your place includes considering more than just the physical environment. It urges us to also consider the local community, the history, and the cultural context of the place and how they come together. It asks educators to think about the relationship the school community has with the world beyond the gate (or in our case the lift), and how the school can build positive connections with it. When you extend this to connecting with the nature you can find around you and the role we can play in looking after those little, disconnected patches of green. Those little parks and green corridors can become special little worlds where play and civic participation can come together. When I began, only the preschool children were going on regular, spontaneous walking excursions, but over time this has grown to encompass all learning groups, including 0-2 years olds.
Rather than having one site we regularly visit for play, we have many small spaces within walking distance that we visit with children. This allows us to walk different paths and see multiple parts of our community on the way. We have found different types of play, tend to happen at these different sites depending on the affordances they offer and well as the cultural constructs the groups of children have created in relation to those places over time. Over the years, these places have been named by the children, reflecting their play and shared imaginary landscapes.
Bio-diversity in the city
Another big shift was encountering theories that helped reconsider the ways to define ‘nature’. To begin to reframe thinking to include humans as nature and to smash the barrier between the ‘man-made’ and ‘natural’. This allowed us to look at those little green spots and recognise that just because they are not wild spaces, does not mean they are not spaces where nature play can happen. The ’natural’ elements like sticks, leaves, climbing trees and bugs that we nature players love were all there, they just were not situated in a bushland setting.
Encountering these spaces with children regularly opens the eyes to the abundance of life; the diversity of plants and the critters that live around us. Engaging in programs like the “Great Aussie Backyard Bird Count” helped us to grow our knowledge of the creatures that we share our urban world with and marvel at the diversity of wildlife that share our city.
We became interested in getting to know the plants in our park spaces as well as the gardens in front yards and nature strips. A stimulating area of interest was figuring out which plants were native and researching what plants were in Sydney before there were houses and roads. Using a post-colonial lens to re-imagine our places offered a new way to consider our practices in relation to our context. We found that Aboriginal perspectives in curriculum and Sustainability for Education were combining with our rethinking of nature pedagogy to create a nexus of ideas that have deeply impacted our practice.
One thing we did uncover was an awareness of the impact lots of little feet can have on a site. We began to see the grass in places become sparse and wondered how we could ensure we were not damaging these places with our play and connection.
This led the teaching team to reflect on how we could ensure our ecological impact on our nature play spaces was not overshadowing the benefits the children were receiving through their play in them. These included:
Dedicated outdoor teacher co-ordinating the nature play program across the service
Multiple play spaces in our local area to reduce our impact
Spaces are given time to ‘rest’ when our impact is becoming apparent
Widening our circle and pushing the older children to places further from the service
Talking about custodianship and what it means to ‘care for the land’ through an Aboriginal perspective across the curriculum
Using Education for Sustainability as a framework to guide pedagogy to include sustainability in all aspects of curriculum design and service decision making.