Let kids bond with nature while there’s still time

Teaching young children to connect with nature may offer hope that the pillage of our planet might be reversed as they grow

‘Forest Schools’ for early childhood and school-age children are a growing phenomenon. Having emerged from Scandinavia, they are now a feature of the early childhood landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, the history of early childhood education in New Zealand tells us experience in the outdoors has always been a strong feature of programmes for young children in this country, and today it is receiving even greater emphasis across a wide range of services

So in the rush to embrace this latest trend of Forest Schools, let us first pause to acknowledge our own home-grown models of early childhood education in the outdoors. The Enviroschools movement has seen a huge growth in kindergartens and other early childhood services that have embraced its kaupapa (philosophy), which is grounded in Māori perspectives. The early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki, the philosophy of Te Kōhanga Reo and Te Aho Matua of Kura Kaupapa all uphold a deep respect for interrelationship with the natural world and the intergenerational transmission of traditional knowledges that preserve and protect this valuing of nature.

The original expression of Forest Schools required children to be outdoors all day, every day, whatever the weather, as espoused in the statement that “there is no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad clothing”. This total immersion in the outdoors stands in stark contrast to some of the early childhood education settings we have seen that, although meeting minimum regulations for outdoor space, provide only ‘postage-size’ concrete spaces with artificial grass and a paucity of anything that might allow children possibilities for playful exploration in open, wide and wild spaces. 

The huge growth in recent decades of what is now sometimes termed ‘the early childhood industry’ has intensified the proliferation of poor quality outdoor spaces. Researchers have pointed out the need for a review of the regulations regarding the minimum requirements for the spaces. A petition launched recently calls for these regulations to be changed to enable full-time nature-based outdoor programmes.

Neuroscience affirms the benefits of unbounded play for children in terms of learning self-control and having opportunities to express creativity and problem-solve, particularly for children with dyslexia, autism and other learning differences. The benefits are recognised in New Zealand by parents who see the value of free experiences in wild spaces for their children.  

Our children’s social and emotional wellbeing is apparently under threat, as New Zealand now has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world, with young Māori people extremely over-represented in this appalling statistic. Richard Louv, who coined the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’, has pointed out the benefits to young people of connecting with nature, and our Department of Conservation endorses this view. Central to this emphasis on the outdoors is the spiritual connection, or sense of wonder, generated by time in nature. And very importantly, through this connection children may be inspired to become advocates for nature. George Monbiot points out that, “Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.” 

Currently, we face a biodiversity crisis. It seems apparent that providing young children with regular and ongoing opportunities to build a sense of connection to the natural world will benefit both them and nature, if these children go on to become advocates for its protection. Given we live on a finite planet increasingly under threat from the onslaught of the human-induced impacts of climate change, pollution, extractive industries and destruction of rain forests and other wild spaces, there is an urgent need to reconsider our relationship with nature. 

Early childhood programmes that, in line with the New Zealand early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki, instil children with dispositions of caring for Papatūānuku (Earth Mother), Tangaroa (spiritual guardian of the oceans) and Tane Māhuta (spiritual guardian of the forests) may serve as beacons offering hope that the pillage of our planet might be reversed as these children grow. 

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