Bush playgroups: outdoors and the early years

One of the latest playgroup initiatives to make waves in Australia involves the great outdoors. Bush playgroups not only encourage children to explore outdoor environments, but to share this experience with their parents and carers. Not only are early childhood educators now taking on the role of ecologists and nature conservationists in order to inspire their younger charges, community leaders and educational experts alike are extolling the value of extended outdoor educational settings. Nature based learning, as it is also referred to, is also growing in importance as an aspect of childcare courses in Melbourne and around the country, demonstrating the increasing value that this type of setting can offer children.

Children who are raised in smaller dwellings such as apartments, unit or townhouses benefit especially as it allows them to lead their play outside. This is often an activity that is foreign to many kids. Partly this is because they do not have the autonomy of a backyard at their house, but engage in quite supervised outdoor play at communal playgrounds or places that don’t necessarily encourage pure exploration.

Further to this, studies have shown that adults that spend more time outdoors as children are more likely to also do so when they grow up. This is good news for our waistlines and our general health as the incidental exercise that is gained by outdoor pottering alone is a great way to combat a sedentary lifestyle.

Many bush playgroups encourage parental interaction with other adults and it gives parents and carers a chance to play with, or observe, their children play in an environment that is completely new. Many parents also enjoy a return to the type of play they themselves engaged in when they were young, but is now restricted, a lot less common or even risky due to many factors of modern life.

The emphasis on freedom is core value of a lot of the nature play that occurs in an outdoor setting such as a bush playgroup. In fact, across several urban areas around Melbourne and Canberra especially, landscape architect designed ‘bush’ parks are beginning to spring up. These natural (and carefully structured) unstructured spaces with many fallen logs, tunnels, rocks and things to explore are popular amongst kids of many ages. Some authorities even envisage this as an introductory space to encourage families to seek out and explore the wider natural outdoors across Australia, whether bush, forests, mountain ranges and nature reserves. Learning to manage risk in a more controlled environment such as purpose built bushland is seen as a great way to helps kids and parents become comfortable with the variability of outdoor excursions.

Weather from all the seasons is also not a deterrent, but a key factor of a bush playground. Encouraging children to be outdoors in all conditions firstly builds their resilience to a variety of environments. It also provides them with opportunities to learn about and witness for themselves the changing seasons and the flora and fauna that evolves with them.

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