About Nature Explorers & Outdoor Learning
Nature Explorers is an educational program which is provided in a variety of outdoor spaces in Northern NSW. It offers a curriculum that empowers the child’s voice and allows children to initiate their own ideas and resource their own learning. Nature Explorers and ‘child-led’ experiences go hand in hand, as the outdoors has few limitations on responding to children’s ideas, needs and interests. Through resources drawn from the natural environment and sustainable practices, children are supported in experiential, inquiry-based and play-based learning aligned with the learning outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF).
Play in outdoor environments helps to facilitate child led learning. Educational programs based on the principles of Forest Schools overseas, are becoming more prominent in Australia because these programs offer an opportunity for a child centred curriculum, where children have the freedom to take the lead in their own play and direct their own learning.
The Children Guide The Way
As the day starts at Nature Explorers, the children lead the session. They check that they are prepared with suitable clothing and hats, and have their backpack equipped for the day. Children become 'Nature Guides' that lead the way, even choosing the direction and pace that we set off in. The program is flexible to allow for changes initiated by children, and this is seen by the many adventures along the way which are all responsive to the interests of the children. Some days children are keen to arrive to site promptly, other days it’s a meandering 45 minute walk, stopping to explore along the way, finding insects, birds and creatures, or noticing the change in flora as the seasons change. On one occasion, the children chose to stop along the way and decided they would set up the site on the way on a grassy patch by a pile of sand. Whilst initially the educators thought this area was limited in the richness of natural resources that it offered and had felt that the children would move on, the educators did not influence the children with their own thoughts, but encouraged the children to make choices and decisions, fostering a sense of agency. The children ended up staying the whole session at this area and it was so engaging. The learning and the outcomes of the day exceeded the educator's pre-conceived ideas, and this was a perfect example of the child-led approach that of Nature Explorers.
Imagination Is A Tool For Learning
One morning in the bush site, three children said they wanted to build. This was a new venture that they had not attempted before and each child labelled their idea differently - ‘castle’, ‘house’ and a ‘cubby’. As the educator, I supported the children to make their ideas and plans visible to each other and that they were collaborative in their conversations and planning. They suggested their own strategies, which were not necessarily going to be successful. However our program philosophy values the process and child led inquiry, so I allowed them to work this out for themselves. They collected sticks and came across problems. They discovered many were too big to build with - first they tried to snap them, then they tried to break them with their foot before utilising a tool to saw them smaller. They persisted when faced with challenges and when first attempts were not successful. At each step along the way their little minds were using a range of thinking strategies, ticking over with ideas, problem solving and then working as team to find and share solutions. There was much conversation as they engaged in decision making about how the structures could be built. The session finished and no structure was built, but the learning that had taken place was immense. This project is likely to be continued next week, when they will build on their new learnings by transfering them to a new situation and thereby creating new steps in the learning process.
The Educator's Role
In this ‘child-led’ environment, the educator’s role is critical in supporting thinking and learning. Educators use a range of intentional teaching that actively supports children in line with our philosophy. We use strategic questioning to support children to find answers themselves. We model and encourage children to engage in reflective thinking to consider why things happen and what can be learnt from these experiences. Sometimes we use a strategy whereby we intentionally allow the children to come across a problem that we are aware of, that we intentionally don’t solve, to give children the opportunity to learn and grow through that experience. Educators observe an immense amount of problem solving and thinking skills and collaboration. Educators have high expectations of each child’s capabilities and view children as skillful and competent.
There's No Hurry
Nature Explorers has a high educator to child ratio, which allows educators the time to focus on the sense of being – a “time to make meaning of the world” (EYLF 2009). There is no rush and little external demands, as the outdoors brings no pressure for fixed routines or set structures. There is time to wait as they discover, explore and create. We support them without interrupting, whether that is observing insects and their trail with magnifying glasses, or wanting to make a magic potion with berries, building a cubby or climbing a tree. Educators take the facilitative role and follow the children’s lead and suggestions, supporting children to learn at their own pace and in ways that make sense to them, because it is their play. Educators can spend extended time with children one on one or in small groups and this supports the child–led program as the child’s interests can be sustained and extended.
Child-Led Until The Very End
We finish the day with the children making their own choices about what to pack up. We allow them to develop a sense of ownership and care for their environment as they take responsibility for it. They pack up the water station, the tool area, check for rubbish or items left behind and retrieve the boundary ropes as the last step. Even folding the shelter tarp is child-led – with children giving the instructions, choosing which techniques to use, and which corners to fold. It takes some time but they do it and it provides great opportunities for leadership and teamwork.
Nature provides the perfect channel for child-led curriculums, to capture children’s ideas, and support them to lead their own learning.