Bush classroom day weaves lessons from nature into learning

Issue: Volume 97, Number 14

Posted: 13 August 2018
Reference #: 1H9jvV

At 8.45am each Monday, 17 students of Waitawheta class at Waikino School head off into the bush for the day in a unique programme that is helping boost the students’ learning and resilience on the other four days of the week they spend in classrooms.

Waikino is in the Karangahake Gorge at the base of the Coromandel Ranges and has 60 students. 

It runs a forest school programme and is also a gold Enviro School with its own area of bush, including a small stream.

The bush day could involve anything from identifying frog species, researching bird behaviour, cutting gorse, building tracks and shelters or playing in the bush stream, which the children do even in winter. They love the whole experience.

Principal Joanna Wheway says her students may get messy and muddy, but there is great learning value for them in interacting with nature. An environment focus is embedded within curriculum goals and in everything they do. She believes other schools should consider similar experiences for their students, even if they have no bush.

“Every school has trees and grass, so my advice is to take advantage of it. Allow them try to make tents and build huts. Don’t worry about whether the school grounds get churned up, or the students get their hands muddy, it’s worth it for the valuable learning opportunities,” she says. “Just get the children out into the grounds.”

Other benefits include behaviour change. “In the bush, children who normally would not mix in with others will interact with other students far more easily.”

Joanna says, “The children only learn what they need to know, and we try hard to get them to have true ownership of and engagement in their learning.

“Being in the bush is very stimulating and what they see excites them, and that motivates them to write about it or use it in their work in other ways, such as researching the creatures they see or writing a blog.”

Startling sights inspire creative writing

A teacher, Lauren Bartram, is with the children for the day, and she also manages the programme. The children choose the main task, but there is room for flexibility based on what they encounter.

One recent day focused on the children in small groups trying to build a small fire, using flint to spark a flame, instead of matches. It required persistence, collaboration, and pushed them to think and find solutions – for example, figuring out why the wood wouldn’t start and what they could do about it.

The teachers guide the learning using prompting and cascading questions that help students to evaluate what they are doing, experiment and be creative to find solutions, as happens in the classroom.

“Our job is ‘how to”, not ‘what to’,” Joanna says. “There is great value in experiences such as learning to light a fire, even if that does not happen easily. It can be difficult, but they learn to keep trying, and not worrying about getting it right all the time and that helps with developing perseverance and resilience.”

To end the day, the children sit in a circle to share what they learned.

The programme is starting to produce increased achievement, Joanna says, particularly with boys who were formerly reluctant to write are now writing more readily because of the things they see in the bush.

“For example, if they come across a frog, they will identify it, photograph it on their iPad, read about its habits and then write a blog.”

Many students at the school write blogs or post videos on their YouTube channels about what they have learnt.

She says at most schools Mondays are often challenging days for students as they can be unfocused and affected by what has happened at home during the weekend.

“But for our students, going into the bush is a fresh and exciting experience and gives them energy, and they are grounded in Papatūānuku. There is a massive increase in focus on task on for the rest of the week.”

Even the school’s chickens are a learning opportunity.

“We link everything to the curriculum. For example, recently we redesigned and rebuilt the chicken coop, and that involved them finding out what they needed to know to do that, using maths for calculations, and their science and technology curriculum goals.

“Essentially, what we are doing is all about showing there are benefits to doing things differently.”

Lighting a fire with a flint teaches lessons

It is winter, and wet and they all have flints. The students put handfuls of twigs in the middle of their circle, with cotton balls in the centre to catch sparks. Each slashes at their flint, from which sparks fly towards the cotton time and time again, but no flame starts.

Lauren watches but gives no “how to” instructions. “What can you do to make it light?” she asks.

“Put the flint closer to the cotton”, says a student. So they do. A flame quickly starts up amongst the cotton, but it splutters out within seconds. “Do you need better fuel?” asks Lauren.

“I think the leaves are too wet. We need drier leaves, like fern. I’ll go find some”, a student says. Sparks fly, the fern twigs burn, but the bigger branches won’t catch alight. “Why could that be?” asks Lauren.

One boy suggests it’s because the wood is too big, and they need smaller branches.

It is a long and difficult process, but they finally end up with glowing ashes that could heat a kettle. Delighted, they start to walk off.

“Is this fire safe to leave?”, asks Lauren. “No,” says a student. “It’s not out yet. We need to douse it with water to put it out.” Safety lesson learnt.

Pilot group being tracked

A pilot group of Waikino students is being tracked intensively in rubrics such as wellbeing, competencies and self-efficacy, alongside close monitoring of literacy achievement. The 17 students in Years 1-3 have been monitored since the start of Term 2, using BES and forest schools norms-based data systems to track student progress.

The teachers take notes on how the students do tasks, and their behaviour, while in the bush.

The school’s philosophy is to embed all learning in the environment, and to allow students the opportunity to learn outside the classroom through scaffolding. Once a month, the school hosts visits from other schools.

For further information, email principal@waikino.school.nz.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 9:00 am, 13 August 2018

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