The Bush Preschool Cultivating the Next Generation of Nature Lovers

carinya bush preschool in springwood

The Carinya children and their educators explore the bush as part of a nature-focused education programme.  (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

Story by Gabiann Marin

Bush Preschool is an international programme which encourages young children to actively engage in the natural environment, rather than just ‘be outdoors.’ Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre in Springwood has embraced the idea, taking their pre-schoolers, babies and toddlers out on regular bush excursions to encourage our next generations to learn about sustainability and the importance of caring for our environment.

Key Points:

  • Involvement with Bush Preschool builds resilience, confidence, empathy and environmental awareness in children of all ages.
  • Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre has embraced the principles of positive environmentalism through their regular Bush Preschool excursions and integration of sustainability and respect throughout all the activities across the Centre.

“I like climbing the rocks and playing with my friend Sam,” three-year-old Clay announces when asked what he likes best about being in the bush on this sunny weekday morning.

Clay, along with eleven of his friends from the Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre, is enjoying one of their weekly excursions as part of the Bush Preschool program.

at carinya children's centre

Each week Alison Sheather and her dedicated staff lead an eager group of 3 – 5 year olds out for a bushland excursion. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

Although many of the students of the preschool have been in the bush before, for some, like Clay, this is the first time he has had the opportunity to truly enjoy the bush on his own terms, something that Alison Sheather, the director of Carinya, believes is fundamental to help all the children get a sense of and respect for the land which they call home. 

bush play at carinya

Three year old Clay loves building and imaginative play during his Bush Preschool excursion. (Photos: Gabiann Marin)

“Different groups have been interested in different things,” Alison explains, having run the program since early 2019 with multiple groups. “Some of the class groups were interested in adventurous aspects like rock climbing. There are big rocks in the reserve where we go and those children wanted to see how well they could navigate climbing them on their own. They had to come up with problem solving and a lot of teamwork to do it successfully. Other groups prefer to venture off on longer bushwalks and explore further tracks in the Fairy Dell reserve, discovering crayfish, water bugs and have even spotted a lyrebird or two.”

“Other classes have been much more interested in bird watching or looking for mushrooms. Each child, and each excursion, is different,” Elyse, one of the educators adds. She watches the current group of children carefully pick their way down the uneven bush track to the clearing below where they will set up for today’s adventures.

“We teach the children to have a respect for the land, so we always start with a greeting and acknowledgement of where we are,” Alison says. “Then it’s enjoying exploring, climbing, playing and building.”

bush rock climbing

Bushcraft Preschool  is all about teamwork and cooperation as Amelia helps her friend Luna climb up the rocks. (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

The current group of children who ramble through the bush today highlight this diversity of interest. Four key areas of activity naturally open up, with a group of clamberers heading for the rocks, while four young entrepreneurs set up a fairy dust factory, crushing the sandstone into powder. This is then used by a group of young artists who learn to combine the dust with water, and use charcoal sticks to create interesting artworks. A fourth group watches birds flitting across the tree tops, asking the adults to identify the different species and carefully pronouncing the words in reply.

“Currawong, Willy Wagtail and Magpie,” are a few of the birds spotted by the eagle-eyed scouts, whose delighted laughter mixes with the birds unique native calls to create a harmony of enjoyment throughout the space.

kids at carinya preschool

Bush Preschool excursions are a great opportunity to combine learning, interactive play and understanding of our natural environment in a unique educational program. Pictured left to right: Amelia, Jasper and Harry. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

Managing Risk

The children are encouraged to explore the designated area, although each group has one or two educators carefully supervising in case any problems arise. Even though the children are only on the very fringes of the National Park, strict safety regulations are in place, including clearly marked boundaries to ensure no one wanders beyond the supervised areas, and structured activities to encourage the children to have a varied and interesting experience in the bush.

The children are well supervised with a ratio of one educator/staff member for every three children on the outing. This proactive approach to safety has helped ensure no major incidents or injuries for the children, or the bush creatures, since the program began, just prior to the COVID lock downs. It is only one aspect of the safety protocols in place. 

“It is bushland so we do have to consider the risks,” Alison agrees. The preparation for the outings includes a careful risk assessment and clear instructions to the children, as well as bush safety and awareness sessions in the Centre prior to the excursions.

“We do a lot of work to make sure the children respect the bush and that means understanding the risks. We had a local reptile man, Mark from Me and Zoo come and do a 6-week program with the children educating them all about snakes and reptiles.“

Elyse adds: “It was a great session for them, and they learnt a lot about snakes and what to do if they encounter one in the bush. But so far it has not been an issue. We plan for the excursions in the cooler months, and we pick places which are going to be less of a risk for snakes. We haven’t really encountered anything other than a few rustles in the undergrowth because the kids are pretty active, and they tend to frighten most of the bigger animals away.”

“What we have had is a few leeches,” Alison reveals.

Building Resilience

While an encounter with a leech may cause many to have a small panic attack, the Carinya children take it in their stride.

“The kids are really good with that. We make sure we take salt with us and they know if they get a leech just to tell one of the adults and we will help them remove it. No one freaks out. Their resilience is really great.”

This resilience is one of the key skills the Bush Preschool is designed to encourage, along with the children’s empathy for the natural environment and each other.

The key to the success of these excursions, though, is the freedom afforded to the children to enjoy the area around them and choose the activities that most interest them.

in the bush near carinya pre school

All the activities at Bush Preschool are child-led. (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

“Our bush sessions are extremely child-led,” Alison says. “We have some projects which have been added to by multiple groups over multiple outings, like our Gunyah, and the fairy tree.”

The Gunyah, a small stick structure built by the children using fallen sticks and branches, is particularly popular. “It’s a stick cottage,” four-year-old Emily explains as she and her friend Amelia play out a morning tea ritual under its shade.

Starting off as just a small pile of sticks, thanks to the endeavours of the children over the last few months the Gunyah has formed into an impressive looking structure.

building a gunyah at carinya

Sam, Clay and William continue to add to the impressive looking Gunyah built up over several bushcraft excursions. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

For Clay, the structure is a gigantic nest where he spies imagined birds hiding in the branches. Otto and Sam are too busy for birds, quietly gathering the dried fallen banksias and assembling them onto the small wooden table, which looks out across the valleys and peaks of the mountains beyond them.

“Eight,” Otto announces proudly after counting the dried banksias he has assembled.

Otto (4) proudly shows off his gathered banksia collection to Carinya Centre director Alison

Otto (4) proudly shows off his gathered banksia collection to Carinya Centre director Alison. (Photos: Gabiann Marin)

Some of these banksias will be taken back to the preschool and used in craftmaking and more general discussions about native flora, but some are handed over to the waiting artists, who use them to paint rock pigments onto pieces of paper. 

Respect for Nature

Although the children are free to pick up and use fallen and dried plants, sticks and rocks, there is a hard and fast rule that they must not interfere with or harm any of the living plants or animals they encounter. Respect for nature underpins the whole bush preschool experience and the children all understand the importance of treating the bushland with kindness.

Three-year-old Daisy smiles as she pats a small tree seedling which has emerged from the sandy soil near the Gunyah. She is careful that her touch doesn’t harm the plant, even though her fascination with the tree is plain to see. Already she is consciously gaining an understanding that her actions have an impact on the natural world around her.

The Natural Preschool Movement

Alison first encountered the idea of a nature-focused preschool program while at an early childhood conference workshop facilitated by Claire Warden, a Scottish educator and the founder of the Natural Preschool Movement in Scotland.

Claire Warden’s Auchlone Nature Kindergarten in Perthshire, central Scotland, has an innovative approach to early childhood education, where the children are outside in nature 80 – 90% of their school time, fostering a connection to nature by actively engaging with the natural environment.

making natural paint

Centre educator Elyse shows 3-year-old Daisy how to make natural paints using rock pigments. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

“It’s about being part of and engaging with the environment, not just being outdoors,” Claire Warden has stated in interviews about her approach. “I want children to know they are a part of nature and nature is part of them.”

sliding down a tree in the bush

Jasper (5) enjoys embracing the natural world. (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

Claire’s ideas have spread across the world, with nature and bushcraft kinder programs inspired by her work growing in popularity across the US, Norway, Sweden and here in Australia.

Although the Carinya program is only able to facilitate short excursions in the Springwood bushland, it is clear to see how even this engagement has helped the children to understand and appreciate the world around them. Each child moves through the bushland area with confidence and delight.

Many carry small paint colour charts as part of a discovery activity introduced by Alison, where the children search for a tree, leaf or plant that matches their chosen colour.

colour play at carinya

Amelia and Emily search for plants and natural features which match a paint swatch as a way to pay close attention to the variety of natural features around them. (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

“It’s all about encouraging their creativity, their sense of adventure and their creative problem solving and teamwork skills,” Alison reveals.

Alison expertly shows the children how to weave bark through the upright sticks of the Gunyah, while Clay imagines a flock of pretty birds stuck in the structure, needing help to escape.

“Oh, we better help free them then,” Alison says, hopping up and happily shifting the group activity to the imaginative game. Soon a whole team of children are on hand, eagerly offering assistance to Clay’s birds in their distress. Eventually the imaginary birds are freed and the children happily move onto their next creative adventure.

bush art

Amelia (4) enjoys the bush art activities. (Photo: courtesy Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre)

Whether the children are gathering twigs for an imaginary fire, or weaving a wall for their Gunyah, or painting with natural pigments, they are all developing their bush survival and craft skills.

As they clamber up onto the rocks, navigating the best path up the rounded rock sides and through the crevices between the granite and sandstone, they are learning how to navigate the natural world and gaining confidence and resourcefulness.

The opportunity to spend a few hours in the bush, observing the natural world over several outings, gives them a perspective of the changing patterns of nature, including weather patterns, plant growth cycles and a deep appreciation for the environment as a whole. Something that will encourage them to develop a sense of environmental appreciation and stewardship as they grow into adults, and continue the work of creating a sustainable and positive future for everyone.

After a few hours playing and exploring, three-year-old Daisy wanders over to the bench seat and curls up for a rest, a clear indication to the Carinya staff that the children are growing tired. The other children are gathered together and each gets to reflect on what they have learned and enjoyed about the Bush Preschool experience. Then the staff and children head back to the Centre, pointing out plants and flowers along the way, their experience helping them to see the whole world in a new and exciting light.

walking to carinya neighbourhood children's centre

A weary but happy group return to the Centre after their bushland adventures. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

outside carinya pre school in springwood

Carinya Neighbourhood Children’s Centre, Springwood. (Photo: Gabiann Marin)

Take Action:

  • Check out if your local childcare or preschool offers a bush excursion activity and if not suggest it could be a great addition to their program.  Find out more about the principles of bush preschool in the book Beyond the Gate | Bush Kinder edited by Claire Warden and Doug Fargher
  • No matter what your age, engaging in the natural environment in a fun and active way helps build a connection to your local area. Take a few hours out of your week to play and create in the bushland. Take your family out for a bush outing.
  • When out in the bushland make sure you leave it as beautiful and unharmed as you found it. Never take any living thing away with you and never leave anything there that wasn’t there when you entered. Respect for the natural environment can be role modelled to your family and community.

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Gabiann Marin

Gabiann has worked as in-house writer/editor for Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Médecins Sans Frontières across Australia, Africa and the Asia Pacific. She is an award winning novelist and children’s book author, having won or been shortlisted for several Australian and international writing prizes. She was one of the key designers and the writer of the award-winning multimedia interactive narrative, Kids Together Now, which focuses on helping children deal with issues around bullying and racism. In addition to her role as storyteller for the Planetary Health Initiative, she tutors in narrative and writing at Macquarie University and works as a writer, story developer and script producer.

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