Nature School – a non-profit community-run organisation – was launched in Port Macquarie last year as a means of encouraging student development through play and nature-based learning and exploration.
Nature-based schools first took root in Scandinavia in the 1960s, before slowly making their way across Europe, where the benefits they brought children were readily accepted.
In the middle of last year, the concept arrived in Australia in the form of a campus located at Port Macquarie's Sea Acres National Park.
The organisation is led by a management board consisting of experts within the community who volunteer their time to help the school. It currently employs five casual educators and three casual administration officers who oversee three-hour and six-hour outdoor nature play sessions, initially for children aged 3-6 years.
A regular day at the school sees children spend their time outdoors in natural spaces driving their own learning through the exploration of the natural environment, with the supervision of the experienced Nature School educators.
Outdoor learning shown to have benefits
Lloyd Godson – one of the school's co-founders and educators – told The Educator about the initial motivation behind Nature School.
“The three of us, who are each founders of the organisation [Jodie Feeney, Lloyd Godson, Sybil Juzwiak Doyle], were motivated to have our own children playing outside creating memories like our own childhood,” he said.
Godson pointed to activities such as “getting muddy, getting wet, climbing trees and exploring the millions of uses of sticks, rocks and plants”.
“We all had studied the benefits of an outdoor learning space for children's overall development and knew that this was the way forward,” he said.
Godson said the main appeals of the school, compared to traditional mainstream schooling, were that it offered free and child-led learning experiences, where children are “responsible for themselves, trusted and part of the team”.
“Children help creating the everyday rules, they choose how far up the tree to go by analysing their own climbing skills and they know they are valued. Children are learning by doing and by experiencing rather than by sitting on a chair,” he said.
“The gross motor skills, cognitive and social skills as well as their problem solving skills developed in an outdoor learning environment prepare these children for today's changing world were thinking outside of the box is the norm.”
However, Godson said a school as the one he operated did not come without its challenges. He pointed to the absence in funding as being a major challenge of operating a bush school in Australia.
He said the operational costs are covered solely on parents’ fees and any donations from the community and countless volunteer hours.
“The weather is only a challenge on extreme circumstances like gale winds, bush fires and so on, but the Nature School runs by the Norwegian saying ‘there's no bad weather, only bad clothing’ whenever it is safe to do so,” Godson explained.
“Another challenge is the education of the community and parents, the concept is fairly new in this part of the world and many families are not aware of the benefits of outdoor learning risk taking and how using sticks, climbing trees and holding rocks are essential pre literacy skills.”
Plans to become an independent primary school
In 2018, The Nature School aims to open for K-2, and will offer more classes according to the community’s demand. Godson said start-up funding will be achieved through a combination of philanthropic funds, government grants, and community fundraising.
He added that The Nature School will be the first “progressive school with a green focus” in the region.
“Whilst still complying with the 6 Key Learning Areas of the NSW Board of Studies, personalised education programs will be unique for each student,” he said.
“Students will be individually assessed on their progress and abilities. In comparison to the standard practice, class sizes will be smaller with multi-aged classrooms and a higher teacher-student ratio.”
Godson said the school will draw on the successes of European countries like Finland, where the focus is on individual successes and creativity, and where students perform significantly better academically, socially and emotionally than students in Australian schools.
“Encouraging creativity, thinking outside the box, problem solving, independent thinking and entrepreneurism – The Nature School prepares students for the real world, and in the long term for employers who are now seeking these characteristics in their employees,” he said.
He added that the school is a community school, which means that it has strong community networks.
“We reach out to experts in all fields in our community, who have a wealth of knowledge and expertise, and asks them to bring these skills and lessons to the children,” he said.
“School buildings are sustainably built, create minimal waste, are built with input from the students, and are an example of how schools should be built now and in the future.”