At the time I wrote this, I was hesitant to share our activities, because even then it felt like, for some reason, I was doing something wrong – that it was wrong for me to play with other people’s children in a place where my own would naturally be drawn.
Numala Kinder Nature Play began as a family day care service, offering children nature play opportunities on the bank of the Nerang River (Gold Coast). At the time, nature play was not a new concept at all, however Australian child care was so wrapped up in fear of litigation surrounding child safety that educators were restricting children’s outdoor and nature play opportunities under the myth that things such as water immersion, tree-climbing, fire work and exploration in natural places were against regulations. It was a brave move for me, one that drew compliments and criticism in equal measure from my community and colleagues. The decision to play outside in the bush and the river with 2 – 10 year olds was one that has completely and dramatically changed my whole approach to education and care for children.
I am so excited to see nature play, bush adventures, outdoor learning and forest school approaches becoming a part of children’s regular experiences in early childhood services. I would love more educators to be able to make the use of the natural resources near them. In our case, I view the river as such a golden opportunity for children’s development. The Nerang River became such an integral part of Numala Kinder that I believe most of our creative, social, physical, cognitive and emotional needs were met (and challenged) here. Here is my account (at the time), our how we began our journeys outside.
When we are down the river everything changes and we are truly in the moment, with each other, thoroughly engaged and enjoying ourselves. Our river is mostly shallow, clear, still and sparkling water. It is slightly tidal, with the water still only half a meter at high tide. The river swells quickly with the rain, and drops just as quickly when the rain stops. The riverbed is covered in smooth rocks and the shore line is shaded by huge fig trees that provide perfect playgrounds both in and under their branches. It is beautifully cool under the trees in summer, and sometimes we spent our afternoons napping in a tent under the shade.
A field of grass stretches along a gentle slope all the way down to the river, and a great variety of birds can be found in the water, on the shore and in the trees nearby. We have a pair of pelicans who come up in winter, some little bright blue kingfishers, great flocks of cockatoos, galahs, corellas, rosellas. We have graceful ibis, purple swamp hens, sweet little ducks. And fish and eels too. The rocks are just the right weight and size for lifting and stacking and the children have made a few little islands and bridges together. On the otherside of the river, after we have tramped through the grasses and weeds, a great steep hill waits for us to slide down on sheets of plastic, squealing with joy. We are naturally drawn down there! I can’t imagine NOT using the river as part of our program.
Due to the adventurous nature of Numala Kinder Nature Play there are quite a few risk assessments for parents to sign – these assessments discuss the nature of the activity, the risks involved, the benefits of the activity (why we believe we can and should safely take the risk!) and what we do together to keep each other safe. These documents support our activities, and children always have a say. Looking after ourselves, each other and our playspace is part of a continual conversation.
My duty of care to the children is paramount. I always check the conditions before we set foot in the water. We go down to paddle and play at a comfortable depth. Children can play in the river if there is no fast-moving current and the water is not too deep. We are not all confident swimmers so at the deepest level, we stay at a depth where the children can squat down and still have their necks above the water. When standing up, this ends up being somewhere between knee and hip deep on the children. I am always standing in the water nearby. (My quick-dry shorts have been the best investment – and I have learned to carry my phone in a sealed plastic bag!)
We do use our homemade raft from time to time – the children can easily push this around together at low tide, but again, only if conditions are safe. It is a wonderful river, and it makes everyone feel better, but when the rains come, I have had to say no to visiting the river a few times, as it has more water than usual, a faster current, and debris occasionally washes down from upstream and settles among the rocks. If we can’t see the bottom we don’t go in, and we wear like to wear reef shoes to protect our feet. The Nerang River can wake up with a mighty roar after a few days of solid rain, being fed by the spilling dams upstream. This itself is an awesome experience for children to observe power of nature – from a safe distance.
I also bring my backpack with me. It is has a first aid kit, my mobile phone, drinking water and cups, emergency contact details, plus a bird guide, drawing materials, stuff to make boats with … and a bunch of other things. The children have their own backpacks with their things in them too. We bring towels and hats and a mat to sit on. Sometimes we bring down buckets and spoons and bowls because we don’t always swim. We don’t miss toys. We don’t miss the dress-ups and puzzles and prepared activities. We have all of that and more up at the house, but that is all there for us when we come back. If we come back 🙂
We play lots of other games by the river. We cook. We climb. We make houses. We make rock paint. We build. We make-believe. We discover. We create. We sit. We listen. We forget about toys. We go there even if it rains (especially if it rains!) We live in the moment. We relax. We laugh and we make lots of noise. We get dirty and wet. We are focused on each other. We love the river.