A small bush primary school is offering an alternative to the mainstream education system and its teachers say at the end of the day, no-one wants to go home.
The Nature School (TNS) Primary in Port Macquarie on the New South Wales north coast, is one of only a handful of schools in Australia based on an outdoor learning model, popular in Europe but in its infancy here.
After being approved by the NSW Education Standards Authority the independent primary school opened in 2018 for Kindergarten to Year 2.
The head teacher Catherine Oehlman said the first year had been a steep learning curve, but a success.
“It hasn’t been a question of ‘have children learned enough?’, it’s ‘look at all the things they’ve learned beyond what we expected, beyond the curriculum expectations for their age’,” she said.
This year the school has expanded to include Year 3 and plans to continue adding grade levels until it becomes a K–6 Primary School.
It already has a waiting list.
Emphasis on outdoor play
Ms Oehlman said TNS needed to meet traditional curriculum guidelines around subjects like English, maths and science, but went about it in a different way.
Around half of each day is spent learning outdoors, with a focus on independent thinking, and a full outdoor adventure day is held once a week.
Outdoor play also happens every day, regardless of the weather.
“We are about children having authentic experiences in nature and learning from and within nature as much as possible,” Ms Oehlman said.
“These children, instead of sitting at a desk, are very often using their whole body in their learning the whole time and that has remarkable benefits.”
Technology is incorporated into daily learning and Ms Oehlman said they had invested in the most robust iPad cases they could find.
“In the bush we might have clipboards walking around, writing and drawing as we’re learning, we might be doing a maths lesson on weight, or mass or length, and we can do that out of the classroom and in the natural environment,” she said.
“Ask these children about big vocabulary associated with science and geography, and they are absolutely there, and their comprehension and understanding is beyond their years.
“There is so much joy teaching in a place where come 3:00pm no one wants to go home. That’s a fantastic thing to have in a school.”
Students thrive in nature
TNS students appeared engaged and enthusiastic when they were learning outdoors and were keen to share their knowledge when ABC Mid North Coast joined them on a bush exploration morning.
“We might see a kingfisher, kookaburra, rainbow lorikeets, or a whip bird,” one student said.
Jacqui Rullis’s son Blake has special needs and Ms Rullis said she chose TNS hoping it would suit him better than mainstream schooling.
She has been delighted by the results.
“He’s come from not being able to have any conversation at all to joining in, making friends. Things that he was struggling with are coming easier to him now,” she said.
Rebecca Thompson, an independent education consultant on the NSW Central Coast, who also runs a bush playgroup, said Blake’s experience was not an isolated one.
“If children are in nature I have noticed is doesn’t become as apparent that there is such a difference in the abilities of the child,” she said.
“It seems what the environment affords to the children is always going to be at an appropriate level to them.
“Whereas when they are in a classroom and they’re being given a certain experience that is only for a certain age group, then we will see children constantly battling to get to a point that their minds and their bodies are not ready to operate at.”
Eirwyn Davidson also said her daughter Evie had thrived at the school.
“Evie went through their early years program, so she was familiar with their philosophy of education; child-led learning and being outdoors and learning from, and in, nature,” she said.
“This environment has let her learn at her own pace and follow her interests and she’s enjoyed it.”
Children ‘not built for sitting’
Ms Oehlman said there was growing interest in Australia in incorporating outdoor learning into preschools and schools.
“We’ve seen them for a long time in European countries and Australia is jumping on board now,” she said.
“There’s a lot of early childhood programs. Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland are doing fantastic things, as well as NSW, but there are very few primary schools ready to take the leap.
“Some, like us, are a full bush primary school, but others embrace it in smaller ways, where a day a week they take their children into the bush, so we are really proud to be one of the first.”
Ms Thompson said outdoor learning should be implemented more widely.
“We’re on the back end of some great research about the benefits of being in the outdoors that doesn’t seem to be enough for policy makers to apply to the curriculum,” she said.
“But what is happening now is that pioneers like The Nature School, and various other schools around Australia, are implementing these programs and having brilliant results.
Ms Thompson said educators are recognising that the traditional learning model may not be ideal for learning.
“We now know there is a way that could work better for us,” she said.
“The struggles do come with systemic decisions that people make around curriculum, particularly the struggles that come with making children sit for long periods when their bodies aren’t built for that.
“Also trying to fit so much into the day, going for quantity over quality of learning. If we’re constantly stopping children and moving onto the next thing they haven’t got time to really learn the thing they are fascinated by or trying to make sense of.
“They actually need to touch it, feel it, and also have an emotional connection to something.
“If we’re giving a child a pictorial card of a green leaf it’s very different to going out into nature and looking at the variety of colours, shapes, textures that a leaf can be. We can learn a lot more that way.”
Bright hopes for the year ahead
Ms Oehlman said she was looking forward to another year of outdoor learning with young inquiring minds.
“We’re very excited this year to be opening up to our Year 3 students,” she said.
“We’ve attracted staff locally — from around Australia and internationally as well — who are coming to work at this remarkable little school.”
The school won an education grant in 2018 which allowed it to buy 10 cameras, which the students are now using to create their own field guide.
“So every time we’re in the bush we have the cameras out and the kids are learning how to focus, zoom in, and hold it still so they can take photos of plants or birds or animals they see,” Ms Oehlman.
“We are going to make it into our own little book that we can share with the wider community.”