Encouraging outdoorsy kids: the Nature Education Network national conference

Last weekend I was very fortunate to attend New Zealand’s 6th annual Nature Education Network national conference – ‘The Natural Phenomena’. With a vision of ’empowering you to bring the wonder and joy of nature to young children’, this was right up my alley (or should I say, this was my kind of totara grove)!

It was held, appropriately, in the ‘Wild Woods’ – the outdoor setting of a nature based children’s preschool just outside of Whangarei in Northland NZ, and it attracted well over two hundred dedicated attendees from backgrounds as diverse as early childhood education, landscape design, council policy planning, parenthood, resource research, environmentalists, counsellors, health and wellness advocates, and people like myself with an outdoorsy focus for ourselves, our tamariki, and our country’s future.

There was so much value to be had here, it was almost overwhelming. Shall I just say, I’ll be back next year!

Helle Nebelong was the first keynote speaker, and her thoughts really were one of the highlights for me.  As one of Denmark’s leading commercial landscape architects, she had plenty to say about the importance of natural play environments for children. She espoused the use of organic shapes and local materials over what she described as ‘KFC playgrounds’ – those being from a Kitset, Fully Fenced and with a ‘Carpet’ of padding underneath (and often in bright, clashing colours of plastic construction). These playgrounds offer very little ‘nutrition’ for children, and she drily observed most children would rather jump the fence and go and play down by the river.

You see, creativity and spontaneity are needed for children to design their own play. When they are given all the answers ‘you climb up this ladder and slide down this slide’ ‘this plastic pizza toy has all the ingredients you’ll need,’ children’s attention spans become very limited. They will do or play as ‘instructed’ but once they have mastered it (very quickly) they become bored and want to move onto something else. But when they are presented with open ended play spaces, particularly with natural materials,  they will spend a lot more time coming up with their own game concept and discussing it with other children. There may be rules to be set down, ideas to be communicated, and they need to co-operate and listen to others. These present leadership and teamwork opportunities, along with the creativity and imaginative skills being fostered.

“What are the children’s preferences?’ Helle asked. So often, children’s spaces are designed by adults employing their own ‘egotecture’ instead of architecture. Think about colour and how it affects mood. It can be visual noise – loud, bright, clashing colours are frequently used for children’s environments, but this can end up being terribly over-stimulating. In nature, very colourful things are there, but often they are in small doses, such as flowers and berries, butterflies and feathers. They are there for us to seek out and enjoy, but they’re not dominating. So why do we force all this ‘noise’ on our kids? Why not take a hint from the natural – children linger mentally when they’re out in nature. It slows them down. They’re more mindful.

These are all ideas that you can think about when considering your own back garden or play spaces too, not just public spaces.

Scandinavia is renowned for its progressive ideas when it comes to outdoor education, pioneering forest schools and kindergartens, and embracing natural design with cues taken from the environment. Helle shared with us her process for the inspiring children’s nature playground in Copenhagen’s Valbyparken (have a look here) – now this is what we need to see more of in NZ. We are surrounded by some of the most wondrous natural landscapes in the world – why are we not taking more inspiration from this when putting together play spaces to inspire our children?

There were workshops a-plenty to choose from, and I wished I could have done all of them! I particularly enjoyed Kathy Quayle’s presentation on fostering children’s creativity through meaningful engagement with the natural environment. She is a senior lecturer in ECE at Wintec (Waikato) with a recently completed research project on the topic, and had us all try to come up with our own definitions of creativity. She impressed that a ‘creation’ needs to have both novelty and value – it needs to be both meaningful and useful to the child. We talked about creativity as a process rather than a product, and the way that children recognise and prioritise change. When they enter an environment they know well, the first thing they will do is seek out any changes from how they remembered it to be – and often, these changes will spark creative thinking.

Perhaps this is why children are so fascinated by concepts of change such as seasons, day and night, tides, and weather?

Another thread to this workshop which really resonated with me revolved around inclement weather play – usually from the child’s viewpoint, as long as they are warm, it’s much more exciting to be out playing in the rain! Children have such an active approach to the outdoors, whereas adults often see bad weather as an obstacle rather than an opportunity to get out there and engage in some creative play inspired by what’s going on around them.

Actually, there was so much fascinating stuff in this workshop that I’ll just have to dedicate another blog post to the ideas we discussed 😉

Franchelle Ofsoske-Wyber pushed our boundaries by asking us to consider what was really meant by the term ‘to commune with nature’. An internationally recognised spiritual teacher and modern day medicine woman, Franchelle talked of our responsibility to realise that being in nature is not a one-sided relationship. Young children have an innate sense of wonder and a connection with the natural world, but as they get older, so often other rules, beliefs, and ‘authorities’ lead to their disconnection, disengagement, and eventual disassociation with it. Our world is in a major state of change and flux – but often, that is the best time for planting new seeds. If we want our children’s world protected, she suggested several ways that we can get kids engaged in the outdoors so that this disassociation can never develop.

These included promoting the earth as a home to many creatures and encouraging children’s activities that empathise with them – such as singing songs to the the river, to the trees, to nature. Telling stories about things from nature – when you put this seashell to your ear, what stories does it tell you? Where has it come from? How do you think that ditch feels with all that rubbish in it? Can you be still and listen for a moment? What song is the wind singing in the trees? Children need to be encouraged to be kind to nature, and it will be kind to them.

I think I’ll have to wrap this up now as it is becoming a novel – sorry! – but I just have to mention the final keynote speech from David Trubridge – artist, craftsman, and designer. His theme was ‘Beauty Matters’ and he talked of all the ‘wedges’ that we have driven into our evolution resulting in a disconnect from nature over the ages. Things like farming and the industrial revolution, with craftsmen being replaced by the economist and the engineer. We’ve moved from a cyclical way of thinking and being, inspired by the rhythms of nature, to timelines and linear ‘progress’. He talked of beauty being a reciprocal gift – it has to be an actual relationship, and without beauty, there will never be true care. This is why it is so important to value beauty in all things, and teach our children to recognise and protect it at all costs.

So, if any of this interests you (and HOW could it NOT!) I suggest you seriously consider coming along to this incredible event next time. It is all organised by a dedicated committee of volunteers – my thanks go out to each and every one of them. You are welcome to camp at the site, you’ll enjoy similar inspiration to everything I’ve nattered on about above, and you will meet some truly amazing people who will get you thinking in ways you didn’t even know that you could. Plus there’s the added bonus of one of the best campfire nights you’ll ever experience!



For more inspiration, tips, (and sometimes a bit of a laugh!) join our energetic private Facebook group for the outdoorsy mother and child! We’ve got a great community going and we’d love to have you. Join here

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