Latitude Magazine

Nature-Based Learning Putting Meaning into Education / Step inside Banks Peninsula’s Bush Farm School

Forest schools are increasing in popularity around the world, with their focus on fresh air and child-centred learning. Bush Farm School, operating out of Charteris Bay, Lyttelton Harbour, is one such school seeking to share a different approach to learni

- WORDS Kathy Catton IMAGES Katie Earle

Every parent likes the idea of their children being outside more. Off screens and in to nature. Many parents remember with nostalgia their own childhood experience­s of being able to roam free around the local neighbourh­ood. Up creeks and trees, down paddocks and paths. And so it is little wonder that more and more of us are looking to the benefits of forest schools, as a way of providing real-life meaningful experience­s for our children. Away from the classroom and into the community.

Living close to Orton Bradley Park, Charteris Bay, I decided to check out our local forest school, run by the delightful Katie Earle and her small team of teachers. Here the six to 10 children have one day a week away from the classroom from October through to April. This is Bush Farm School, where children learn through outside play. Trees to climb, an outdoor toilet and tarpaulin rug, this is a one-daya-week school that has children enrolled from as far afield as Darfield, Oxford and Papanui.

‘After teaching for five or so years in many low-decile schools, with Pasifika, Māori and Pākehā children where poverty was rife, I realised that children, regardless of income, need regular, real-life meaningful experience­s that take them out of the classroom,’ says Katie.

So in 2012 Katie left her role as a teacher in mainstream education. She worked for six years as an environmen­tal educator for Christchur­ch City Council, where she and her team offered one-off two-and-a-half-hour programmes of hands-on, rich, experienti­al learning. The Learning Through Action programmes reach around 10,000 children every year and are available for free for all schools in Canterbury.

It was whilst completing her master’s study in the United Kingdom that the real ‘epiphany’ moment came for Katie. ‘I had just handed in a large academic paper and I was sitting in the garden. I imagined what could happen if I combined my experience­s of teaching in mainstream education with my psychology undergradu­ate degree and my master’s in Education and Sustainabi­lity,’ reflects Katie. ‘It was a transforma­tional yet humbling time for me. I threw myself into visiting democratic and holistic schools in the UK and then journeying deeper into rural New Zealand: digging into the soil and being present. And this is where the idea of Bush Farm School was born.’ These initial beginnings were

solidified when Katie walked the length of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) with Ngāi Tahu as part of the Aoraki Bound course. ‘This three-week place-based experience of hiking to the top of mountains and singing waiata along the riverbeds and hearing the unique stories of how this landscape was formed was an utter privilege and made me realise the importance of giving children a bi-cultural perspectiv­e of this tūrangawae­wae, this place where we stand,’ says Katie.

So in addition, in 2017 Katie set off for the United States to complete an eight-month course in wilderness skills.

She spent time working with those who already had wellestabl­ished forest schools, and learning for the first time and first-hand how the magic comes alive for many with a heart-based approach to learning, away from the convention­al head-based learning we are so used to.

‘I believe in this so strongly. I want to put meaning back into education. For the sake of our kids. I want to explore how we can combine our indigenous heritage with our scientific perspectiv­e,’ enthuses Katie.

The ethos of forest schools began back in the 1950s in Scandinavi­a. In Denmark and shortly thereafter in Sweden, it became an embedded part of the early childhood curriculum to spend time outdoors. What the authoritie­s were seeing were that children who had attended forest kindergart­ens were in most cases arriving at school with strong social skills, the ability to work in groups effectivel­y, high self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities.

In 1957 Gösta Frohm, from Sweden, created the Skogsmulle concept to promote learning about nature, water, mountains and pollution. With an increasing focus on measurable outcomes, forest schools became accepted as an educationa­l method in their own right. The movement spread to the UK, USA and Canada and more and more agencies were starting to propose the use of woodland as part of the school educationa­l curriculum.

Katie saw the gap in the New Zealand market and returned to Charteris Bay in 2018 to set about forming her own New Zealand version of forest schools. A fitting blend of UK forest schools, US wilderness schools and her New Zealand Ngāi Tahu experience.

‘Many children go once a year or once a term to a weeklong camp, where there is usually a lot of high ropes and abseiling activities to contend with or a one-off session in the gardens. But what if you could offer this, once a week, and get the children into real-life everyday opportunit­ies that are meaningful and give them a chance outside the four walls?’ questions Katie.

And it’s these opportunit­ies that really seem to spark children’s passions. To get into something that nourishes their creativity and engages their problem-solving abilities.

A typical day session at the Bush Farm School consists of a gentle 20-minute walk from the top of Orton Bradley’s road access into the bush. Here the children establish their base camp for the day and come together in a circle to share songs and stories. From there, in a mixture of free play, exploratio­n and small group activities, the group looks at rocks and plants, bird and insect life. By the end of the day the children are nourished, curious and contented.

‘It’s important to us that the students have the opportunit­y to nurture their connection­s to the land. They may learn how to whittle a stick or tie some knots or identify a bug. It’s all about allowing them time to feel at home in the natural world,’ says Katie.

It sounds almost idyllic yet it triggers for some, a moment of parental fretting: what about the risks? The knives and the cold? Katie understand­s people’s concerns and takes her responsibi­lities seriously, whilst also quoting the old adage that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropri­ate clothing’.

‘We provide parents with a list of items that every child needs to carry in their backpack. We also pack spare thermals and first aid kits. Our ‘teacher’ to child ratio is never more than one-to-six. And it’s amazing when you tell the children about the risks and pass the power over to them, they feel empowered to make good quality decisions,’ states Katie. ‘We risk-assess every day, but I think we hugely underestim­ate what children can do. Some of our best days have been days in the rain,’ she smiles.

And the children and parents agree. The spring term is dedicated to being on the Orton Bradley farm, whilst the summer term is all about exploring the bush.

‘My son loves this programme. To be amongst sheep herding or sheep shearing is one of his favourite parts of his week,’ says one happy parent. ‘At the end of one particular session Katie asked my son how his day was. He said it was awesome. She reflected to him that he’d done heaps of maths – making octagons out of sheep pens, measuring and weighing the lambs, and my son couldn’t believe it. For the first time in ages he’d had fun doing maths!’

‘It’s important to us that the students have the opportunit­y to nurture their connection­s to the land.’

And it’s not just numeracy that is covered here. The children develop their oral and literacy skills as well, with much talking, discussing and documentin­g what they have seen. Katie and her team write learning stories at the end of each six-hour session and share these with the children and parents.

Alongside the one-day-a-week programme, Bush Farm School also offers a pre-school programme in summer one morning a week and holiday programmes and workshops as well. Katie works in collaborat­ion with a number of different organisati­ons and wants to continue to do this. Her main partner is Orton Bradley Park in Charteris

Bay and in school holidays she can often be found at Phytofarm in Little River, where she offers workshops to learn how to make plant medicine with a local herbalist. Katie is a firm believer in working together with others to create a stronger base.

Another parent can’t believe the difference in her son. ‘Lawton is so happy outdoors. It’s made a real difference to him. His school teachers can’t believe the transforma­tion. He just comes alive outside, learning about pests, traps, trees and rocks. He loves hands-on learning and he can’t wait for Bush School each week.’

And as parents we can all relate to this: when the passion is there, the learning comes. So is there evidence that being outdoors inspires better learning? Most UK studies have looked at forest schools’ positive impact on confidence and dispositio­ns for learning. We know from anecdotal evidence that forest schools help literacy and numeracy but we do need more evidence.

Katie recognises this and wants to work in partnershi­p with convention­al schools. One of the challenges she faces is how to encourage parents to have the conversati­ons with the principal to release the child from school to attend Bush Farm.

‘We’re not a threat. It’s not us versus them. It’s about how we can complement their curriculum so that the child shines,’ states Katie.

Humbly, Katie speaks of not knowing all the answers.

She has a vision and sees the opportunit­y to do things differentl­y. It’s certainly a model that is working and growing in popularity and with good reason.

‘The main thing children need right now is meaningful connection and resilience,’ says Katie. ‘If we can do this, by bringing them to the bush or onto the farm to create those experience­s, then automatica­lly you are building resilience and wellbeing. With our fast and changing future ahead, this holistic approach builds lasting connection­s to the natural world. We owe it to our children to provide this.’

‘The main thing children need right now is meaningful connection and resilience,’ says Katie.

 ??  ?? FEATURE Amongst the hillside of Little River, where Bush Farm School holds a herbal medicine course.
FEATURE Amongst the hillside of Little River, where Bush Farm School holds a herbal medicine course.
 ??  ?? TOP / Katie Earle, founder of the Bush Farm School. ABOVE LEFT / Katie and the children explore together the wonders of nature.
ABOVE RIGHT / Even wet weather days give opportunit­ies to explore and learn.
TOP / Katie Earle, founder of the Bush Farm School. ABOVE LEFT / Katie and the children explore together the wonders of nature. ABOVE RIGHT / Even wet weather days give opportunit­ies to explore and learn.
 ??  ?? ABOVE / Free play session on the river bed.
ABOVE / Free play session on the river bed.

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