Nature & Fun Collide When You Play Outside!

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More green time, less screen time! It’s time to get the kids back into nature. Ian Pugh takes a walk on the wild side of child’s play and discovers a few places where nature and fun collide! Warning – there will be MUD!

Nicki Farrell, director and co-founder of Wildlings Forest School, mentions an article she read recently about how doctors are now prescribing soil-based probiotics because they contain what many of us are missing in our gut microbiome. Yes, doctors are basically prescribing dirt for our health!

For Nicki and her business partner, Vicci Oliver, this is just one of the many reasons why they are so passionate about getting children outside and playing in nature again. Nicki and Vicci are both ex-high school teachers who had become disenchanted with the rigidity of the current education system.

They started Wildlings in 2017, initially as just a playgroup/forest kindy, but it wasn’t long before parents were asking if they did holiday workshops. Soon after that, they found the ideal space to operate from – a beautiful forest area on the outskirts of Nambour with a wonderful, safe creek – and they haven’t looked back since.

In a world where kids (and adults!) are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature, Wildlings is all about “putting the dirt back into childhood”. The activities they offer are numerous: making fire with flint, cooking damper over a fire, building rafts, whittling with pocket-knives, making weapons and shelters – and sometimes just playing in the mud!

Over the last few years, Nicki and Vicci have seen the dramatic effect that being outside and playing in nature can have on children. Quite often, kids that arrive for the first time will have difficulty navigating the space (“because they live on a flat suburban block and travel everywhere in a car”) and some don’t even want to touch the mud. But this usually doesn’t last long.

As they begin to know and trust their bodies, they become more coordinated and stronger – not just physically but mentally as well. Nicki explains that depression and anxiety in children are often because they feel like they lack control in their lives.

“Everyone is making decisions for them. They don’t know what they’re good at or not good at,” she said. “To get good grades at school everything must be done a certain way which limits creativity and ‘thinking out of the box’.

“When kids have the freedom to start challenging themselves we see their confidence blossoming. These days there are so many cultural, societal and educational expectations. We just want them to be kids! The benefits of being in nature are social, emotional and physical. We see firsthand how it ignites curiosity, imagination and creativity.”

According to Nicki, the importance of play cannot be overemphasised and yet here we are in Australia with increased “academic push-down” (Prep has basically become Year 1). This is the opposite of what Scandinavian countries are doing, where they insist on play-based schooling until the children turn seven.

“We know how important play is at Wildlings,” says Nicki. “Play is how children learn best. Throw nature into that play and you have a health bomb.”

Another wonderfully earthy spot where children are encouraged to enjoy everything nature has to offer is Natureweavers – an “earth school” based in Black Mountain and run by Carly Garner, an environmental advocate with 17 years’ experience in the NGO, community and education sectors.

Carly realised some time ago that kids (and adults) are unlikely to do anything about the environment unless they have a connection to it. She believes that “with children, you don’t have to change their minds about nature – you just have to nourish it and nurture it.”

“Kids have this foundational empathy that they arrive with,” she says. “Animals and trees are their friends. They are gentler, kinder, and in less of a rush. They are more likely to lie on the grass and stare at clouds.”

All of this, and a lot of outside play, is encouraged at Natureweavers which Carly runs from a beautiful property, complete with dam and organic veggie patch. They purposely keep the groups of children small to enable as much one-on-one time as possible.

For Carly, raising children that are environmental stewards is important, but she also sees childhood as an awesome, joyous period in life – so they always make the effort to come from a positive angle. It’s what she calls “sitting in the light”.

Some of the play might be considered risky to the untrained eye such as whittling, lighting fires, climbing trees and so on, but the worst incident they have had in the five years on the property is a splinter from the deck! Carly believes that given the choice, children naturally don’t do crazy things that might lead to injury. She also has high expectations of children’s abilities and believes they are capable of doing a lot more than they might think.

“It’s just important that they learn in a way that suits them,” she says. “Some are auditory learners who like to talk, some are kinesthetic learners who might learn by doing, while others might prefer to draw a picture.”

Most days at Natureweavers include time spent in the forest and this will sometimes involve returning to the same place (“a sit spot”) so that they can closely observe any changes that might be happening, and then talk about them. Observing things like creek flows, dam levels, things that have grown or died etc. is often more relatable in terms of environmental awareness than say, hearing how many acres of the Amazon have been lost that day.

Carly has an ever-expanding list of things that she would like children to know. Everything from growing food organically, using a knife to make stuff, various bush-crafty skills, reading the weather, navigating without a compass, bird language, and the list goes on.

“It’s all about feeding their natural curiosity,” she says. Both Wildlings and Natureweavers offer workshops and camps over summer.

About the Author /

Ian is a writer of pretty much anything from children's books to film scripts and any other kind of freelance writing. Originally from Zimbabwe, Ian moved to Australia six years ago with his family and is now happily settled in Cooroy. As well as running a graphic design business with his wife, Lara, Ian does a lot of editing and proofreading for clients such as World Vision International.

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