Early Childhood Bush kinder: building resilience after Black Saturday

Bush kinder has helped the kids at Kinglake Ranges. Photo: supplied

After Black Saturday, Bush kinder has turned around serious behavioural issues at Kinglake Ranges Children’s Centre.

Watching a delighted bunch of four-year-olds decked out in high-vis vests and face paint at their bush kinder Christmas party, it’s hard to imagine the intense stress and conflict that once characterised the cohort.

Sue Bullock says that when she became director at Kinglake Ranges Children’s Centre almost three years ago, students at the centre were suffering from a range of challenging behavioural issues. “My focus for the first eight months was creating a calmer centre across the whole program,” Sue says. “We had a lot of children not being able to regulate their emotions. Not a lot of resilience. So, if a child did something, we’d have tears and meltdowns and tantrums and really over-the-top emotional reactions.”

Some of the conflict may have stemmed from trauma local families experienced as a result of the Black Saturday bushfires that devastated the area 10 years ago. Research shows that stabilising a community affected by massive trauma can take many years.

“We don’t know what it would have been like if the fires hadn’t gone through,” Sue says. “But I know that a lot of services that deal with young people and youth in the shire are very aware of mental health concerns in children in our community.”

Bush kinder has grown into a national movement. At its core is a recognition of the bush as central to Aboriginal culture and Australian life.

Teacher Linda Price, who established the bush kinder program with Sue, has noted the growing rates of anxiety among young children. “In Australia, I think one in seven children under the age of 12 are having mental health challenges every year,” says Linda. “That’s really, really high. And that can be as young as the age of three. That’s not unique to our community. That’s across the board.”

Investigations into fresh options for the centre pointed to society’s growing disconnection from nature as an underlying cause of mental health and behavioural problems, including nature deficit disorder. The kindergarten’s team had already observed the positive impact of having space to play, time spent in bare feet, and an open-door policy allowing kids to choose between indoors and out.

Outdoors won almost year-round, even during weeks of rain and frequent frosts. These were kids living on the urban fringe with big backyards and room to move – even if, like city kids, they didn’t spend as much time outdoors as previous generations. “We thought, ‘Let’s try to provide them with that space that they’re used to and then we can work with them in much more productive ways’,” Linda says.

Since its inception in 2012 at Westgarth Kindergarten in Northcote, bush kinder has grown into a national movement. At its core is a recognition of the bush as central to Aboriginal culture and Australian life, and a growing body of international evidence exploring the cognitive, emotional and social benefits of playing and learning in the natural world. Victoria now has more than 100 bush and beach kinder programs, each tailored to its local environment and children’s needs.

Close inspection on a bushwalk through Kinglake National Park. Photo: supplied

Kinglake Ranges Children’s Centre’s four-year-olds spend one of three sessions each week at Masons Falls in Kinglake National Park. Sue says the donation of a bus would allow her to extend the program to every age group, from six weeks to six years.

Bush kinder activities are driven by children’s interests. Risky play like climbing rocks, logs and trees is, understandably, perennially popular. Learning to take on these physical challenges safely builds confidence, muscles and gross motor skills and develops the executive function of the brain, which drives decision making.

The benefits flow through to home-life and kinder sessions too. In 2017, for example, a child with impaired gross motor skills shocked himself by mastering the fireman’s pole on a regenerating Silver Wattle at bush kinder and the following year taught his friends to do the same. “The confidence in him was just phenomenal,” Linda recalls.

Paying attention to the small stuff has had knock-on effects across a range of other activities, be it drawing, use of vocabulary or learning to question things in minute detail.

Games like ‘Run, Flop and Look’ teach children to notice the details around them, like tiny insects and bright red fungus in a grassy thicket they’ve flopped down into. Training in iPad and iPhone photography and imaginative play help them to capture their observations in creative ways.

“The stuff they noticed was amazing,” Linda says. “We had one boy who was looking at a mosquito; it had all these drops of water on its wings, and he was copying the movements it was making.”

Paying attention to the small stuff has had knock-on effects across a range of other activities, be it drawing, use of vocabulary or learning to question things in minute detail.

“The detail was coming in everywhere. That’s essentially academic benefits from a preschool perspective. All of those details build really strong, literate children later on at school.”

Sue concedes this empathetic, imaginative play didn’t come naturally at first for kids who, like most of us, spend much of our times indoors and on screens. They had to be taught to make up games using natural materials like sticks and, later, to leave things like bark in place to protect trees.

Last year’s cohort loved using a language app developed by the Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation with help from Buxton Primary School and language expert Aunty Lee Healy. They learnt numerous nature-related words from ‘crow’ to ‘tiger snake’ in the language of the local Indigenous people.

Bush kinder reconnects kids with nature and improves resilience. Photo: supplied.

Linda says introducing Aboriginal perspectives into bush kinder began with the seven seasons recognised by the Kulin people, which showed teachers and students how to recognise cyclic changes in flora and fauna. “The [Kulin people] would say, ‘Wombats go away when the wattles flower’ and ‘When the wattles flower early, it’s going to be a hot summer’. Because the wattles are showing, the cold is coming to an end and summer is coming. So the kids were starting to make those connections.”

Sue says safety is the number-one concern for parents and teachers alike. Bush kinder began in grounds behind the centre before moving to the national park. Children learned early to respect boundaries marked by coloured flags hung from trees, and to ask permission to venture beyond. Teachers carry walkie talkies and use codes to communicate en masse. ‘Coo-ee’ means ‘come back together as a group’ while a whistle signifies ‘emergency: come quick’.

They’ve learned plenty about bush safety and care from the local ranger, who sometimes arranges fire-truck visits and regularly picks up rubbish on the site, modelling behaviour the kids now emulate. In-situ science teaches safety too. A nearby frog pond is like a lab in winter, where kids study frogs’ eggs accumulating on sticks. In summer, though, it’s a no-go zone. “It’s like McDonalds drive thru for snakes,” says Linda. “There are so many frogs in here, and guess what snakes eat?”

Feedback from parents and prep teachers shows bush kinder is meeting its goals of reconnecting kids with nature and improving their resilience, emotional literacy and self-regulation – as well as building respect for the bush, boundaries, Aboriginal knowledge and diversity. Sue and Linda say it’s delivered with a child-centric approach to teaching inspired by fresh insights from neuroscience and psychology.

Sticking to a plan for the day is less important than knowing what’s happening in each child’s life, meeting them there, and looking for opportunities to “fill their cups” with whatever they need, be it fun or freedom or belonging. “It’s really fool-proofing our future leaders,” Sue says. “If you trust that our children and teenagers actually have the capacity to be our future leaders and not treat them like they’re down there and we’re up here, it makes a massive difference to what they do.”

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