Learning by Nature, The Nature School

On a quiet block on the outskirts of Port Macquarie lies one of the most unusual and progressive schools in Australia – a place where children can be found swinging from trees, lighting fires (under supervision, of course) and making mud pies in the rain.

While following the national curriculum, The Nature School is founded on the philosophy of child-led learning in a natural outdoor environment – an approach that is gaining increasing support as parents struggle to tear their kids away from screens.

girl with magnifying glass

Studying a friendly leech

Six-year-old Aria is staring at a stick, fascinated, her eyes following a leech travelling towards her hand. As kids gather around to marvel at the squirming creature, I stand frozen, hoping no-one will notice my very real leech phobia. I let out an involuntary squeal of terror when Aria drops the stick and the little girl looks at me quizzically, wondering what the fuss is, before running off to join her friends as they explore a dense tract of bushland. A teacher happily follows the kids into the bush while another supervises a group quietly reading on a mat spread out beneath the trees. Leeches aside, it’s a delightful scene.

nature school founders

Nature School Founders (l to r) Lloyd Godson, Sybil Juzwiak Doyle and Jodie Feeney, Image courtesy of Focus Magazine

The Nature School (TNS) was founded by three parents and educators, Jodie Feeney, Lloyd Godson and Sybil Juzwiak Doyle. After successfully launching an early years program for three to six-year-olds in 2015, TNS Primary opened its doors at the beginning of 2018 for children in Kindergarten to Year 2. In 2019, the school will expand to include Year 3.

Co-founder Jodie Feeney is understandably excited about the success of the school – one of the few of its kind in Australia. “After beginning with the early years program just three years ago, to see this actually happening is incredibly exciting,” she says. “We don’t see ourselves as an alternative school; we’re a progressive school. A lot of what we do is just common sense. We follow the children’s interests, making learning fun and deeply engaging.”

scarecrow

The children enjoy harvesting fresh veggies

It’s a sentiment shared by head teacher Catherine Oehlman, who left work at a prestigious Sydney private school to accept her role at The Nature School. A self-confessed ‘nature nerd’ and avid birdwatcher, Catherine has well and truly landed her dream job. “Not everyone gets to do playground duty that looks like this!” She laughs, as we chase kids through a fairy-tale-like bamboo forest, struggling to keep up as they scramble up thin sticks and drop to the ground with confidence. “I always said that if anyone started a nature school in Australia, I’d be there.”

One child trips over, scratching her knee. I ask Catherine how she deals with the risks posed by an outdoor environment in an age of over-protection. “Our approach is to make things as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible,” she says. “We don’t like it when our children are injured, but at the same time, there’s a lot of learning that happens in the process of falling down and getting back up.”

kids in the bamboo forest

A bamboo forest forms part of the school’s playground

A typical day at TNS Primary includes between three to six hours of outdoor time either spent on the school grounds – a classroom and huge outdoor area that the school leases from a local community centre – or in one of the various nature reserves utilised for outdoor learning. Children are also taken on fortnightly excursions into the community – to museums, waterways, supermarkets and beaches. While the school follows the same curriculum as other schools, lessons are decidedly more fluid; science could involve sketching an insect identified in the bush, while maths might involve weighing mud pies in the dirt kitchen. “We sometimes begin our day around a fire, which the kids light themselves with a flint and steel,” Catherine says. “The children will lead their learning through creative play, cooking, gardening, craft, reading and sports. It’s a lot of fun – and, believe it or not, rainy days are the best! We don’t believe in bad weather, just a spare set of clothes.”

happy kids

Exuberant faces ready for the day

Mother-of-two and Nature School parent Melissa Wiersma is grateful for the change she’s witnessed in seven-year-old Zade since he began attending the school at the beginning of this year. “Zade started at a mainstream school and would come home every day agitated and crying,” Melissa says. “He was scared and bored and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t allowed to take his shoes off in the sandpit or why he couldn’t climb a tree. I wanted him to love school and love what he was learning. He’s in his element here.”

As the school day concludes it’s evident that most of the kids are reluctant to leave, still engrossed in discovering bugs or making leaf artworks. Eventually, they come racing out of the bush, herded by a group of teachers and parent volunteers who are weighed down by books, binoculars and woven grass creations (leeches are thankfully left behind). If these kids’ exuberant faces are anything to go by, The Nature School is clearly onto something wonderful.

For more information, go to www.thenatureschool.org.au

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