NATURE PLAY – Take Back Childhood was a screening like no other that has put fire in our bellies! Hosted by Suburban Sandcastles in the beautiful old theatre at Shirley Bourke, in Parkdale. The film was screened to ignite a discussion about children in nature and how our Australian government rules our kids futures by school tests, tests and more tests, leaving them without enough time to learn through PLAY.
The spotlight is firmly on the education system here in Australia, and with falling literacy and numeracy scores being addressed with more and more standardised tests, many are calling for a revolution in the way we teach the next generation.
NaturePlay is a stunning cinematic portrait of childhood filmed in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the US that portrays the Scandinavian method of teaching, living and enjoying nature, compared with the high stakes and high-stress American testing culture.
The film argues, through it’s narrative featuring Matt Damon, that the focus in school is no longer centred on what’s good for the child, but rather data and performance outcomes driven by political agendas and societal expectations. There is little value placed on the needs of the child for outdoor play, for the love of learning, or time to develop innovative and creative minds and there is high value placed on producing a very specific product – test scores.
Screening completed and it was time to take the mic and start a conversation. Teachers, educators and childhood proffessionals and parents filled the room. As always, it takes a little while for people to feel comfortable and the conversation started to flow with ease as we neared the end. There were so many more thoughts that popped into our heads after coming away from the night, wishing we had of said more.
Up for discussion was the garden we created at Bonbeach Primary School. I feel we left many questions unanswered, being a little tongue tied from nerves (holding a mic and being in the spotlight isn’t normally our thing)
A few questions I don’t think were answered properly.
What types of children come to the garden?
The ones we know well are the ones who ‘need’ the garden. It is a space for them to be quiet, to be with their own thoughts and imagination. Every child needs and takes something different away with them. Children with special needs of any degree (every child has needs) require either a lot of your time or just like to be monitored or neither. You can see the freedom as they play in an unstructured way when digging, picking flowers or just admiring chickens.
How is the garden affecting daily school time?
It’s not. Kids aged 5-13 come into the garden at their own will during play times. Some just like to run through it, while others spend the whole hour finding bugs, making mud pies, caring for the chickens, creating cubby houses, looking for frogs or playing cards under the shelter just enjoying the space.
We encourage teachers to use the space and take a class outside to learn maths or science or what ever it is! Every part of the curriculum can be translated using some part of the garden. Does it happen? Yes! we see mostly specialist classes and junior grades. We aren’t there all day every day, so it would be hard to officially say how many classes do use the garden for structured learning.
Who or what initiates play?
A lot of the play structures have been initiated by the kids. We found one tiny little mud pie and created a mud kitchen, to that we then contacted a company and begged for them to donate a full mud kitchen. A pile of sticks spurred us on to get hold of extra long bamboo poles so that they could build their own tee-pee structures. A frog was found in the garden, so we got all the kids together and created a frog bog. Compost waste wasn’t being put in the correct bins, so we built worm holes direct in the garden beds so they could see their waste breaking down. Logs are always being moved to find bugs – bug hotels fixed that curiosity but we still struggle with the moving of logs. The next installment will be providing a bounty of tree logs that they are free to move around.
When you believe in food education and environmental issues you force yourself to keep on going, to make a difference to help be part of the change. We are doing this and will keep on doing it! After many years of volunteering we now get paid by the school to teach 3 classes a week and 3 hours of maintenance a week, it is temporary and hope that it will continue more than the 10 weeks it has been scheduled for.
Of course there is also a lot of pride. When you have built something from the ground up without funding and see how much of a difference it makes to kids and their families you can’t help but have a moment and think I made that opportunity happen.
The school principle supports our vision and happily welcomes most ideas that come up to implement something new in the grounds. Red tape is rare and if there is, it has a reason. We are very lucky to be doing what we do.
Courage, Will, Determination and TIME. Volunteering to a project like the garden without a wage is exhausting to say the least. We both have families and thank them for understanding. Also we tend to live simpler lives and don’t go out and buy every new pair of shoes we desire. We were pretty chuffed when Blundstone gave us a pair of boots each. Donations always come in which is fantastic and there wouldn’t be a garden without them. There is always hope that maybe one day we will get paid for the work we do. (calling all sponsors here) just as the donations come in, it takes time and effort to pick up, plant, shovel, level, dig, sweep, clean, tidy up and send thanks.
We don’t do it for ourselves, if we did we would have given up years ago. It’s for the kids, to get them active, to let them learn in an unstructured environment, to be creative without boundaries (well, some, but not many) to gain and appreciate plants, wildlife, food and where it comes from.
To see kids with mud upto their arm pits and appologise to the mums at pick up for the washing they now have to do, puts a smile on our faces because we know they have been busy in the garden, using their imaginations, doing things they might not do at home.
When you see a mother crying because her child now eats vegetables because he grew them – there is no more to say.
To see the kids show their families around the garden after school is something we never get tired of seeing. They show their families around with pride, ask them to sniff a herb or grin as they point out their mud pie or bug hotel that they created that day.
We need to un-busy our kids lives so that they have time to get into nature, enjoy it, explore it, be part of it, in order to respect it!
There are no tests, no exams, just unstructured PLAY in the garden at Bonbeach Primary School.
With many thanks to Bridget for allowing us to take part in this great conversation and allowing us to share our thoughts, stories and garden. We welcome teachers, students and childcare professional’s or anyone else wishing to see the garden for tours – please contact the school. 03-97723471.
Visit Bonbeach Farmers’ Market for Open Garden day where you can have a wander around and play for yourself.