When Karen Anderson visited nature kindergartens in Denmark, educators asked her where her closest natural environment was. Her reply was the beach, where she took the children just once a year. Upon her return, she began taking children once a week. Ingrid Maack profiles Balnarring Preschool, where a beach and bush program is making waves in the local community and beyond.

As a child, Karen Anderson* paddled in rock pools while holidaying at Balnarring Beach. Her family later moved to the seaside village on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, where she lived across the road from the local preschool.

Today, Karen is the educational leader at that very same community-managed preschool—where she has worked for three decades—and regularly takes children on rock pool rambles as part of its Kindergarten at the Beach program.

While at Frankston Teachers’ College (now Monash University), Karen did a science major and her passion was the local marine life. But, she says, it has taken her 30 years to come full circle and realise the full potential of the outdoor classroom that sits on her doorstep.

‘In my own teaching and reading I had begun to feel that life was too fast and childhood was being rushed. I was also aware of children’s environments being risk-free and therefore devoid of stimulation, challenges and adventure.

‘Then in 2011 my son raised funds to attend the World Scout Jamboree in Sweden. I decided to join him and do a study tour of Denmark. I contacted a woman from Inside-Out Nature  who designed a tour for me.

‘It was similar to scouts…They lit fires, caught crayfish (made soup), cut up vegetables, went on a rope swing and played in the rain…It was pretty special! ‘On the first day of our visit there were many children present in the playground but no educators. When I asked: “where are the educators? In Victoria we have to have the children in our sights at all times”…the woman said “why are you asking…don’t you trust children in Australia?” I realised then that we probably don’t… and this really challenged me’.

A four-week trial in November 2011 went better than expected and with the support of staff and a passionate parent committee, the beach and surrounding bush is now a permanent learning environment which children and educators explore every Friday—rain, hail or shine!

‘When I decided to educate in nature, I told myself “there are no barriers”. Many of the teachers were anxious and fearful with what-ifs but I told them I would make it work.’

Karen spoke to the Department, did necessary risk assessments and began by taking half-groups of children to gain parents’ trust. She says it is like arranging any other regular excursion, with written authorisations required.

‘I designed a form that the parents sign each week which outlines what we will be doing, how many adults will be present and gives us permission to seek medical assistance if required. The parents also provide their contact details for that particular day so I can be assured I will be able to contact them if need be.’

She says that as far as the rules go, very little has actually changed with the introduction of the new National Regulations. ‘It is just a matter of ensuring policies are followed, such as having a mobile phone, first aid kit, qualified staff present and hygiene issues such as toileting, washing hands and rubbish disposal.’

Each week, parents drop and collect children at the beach, not the centre, and many parents are themselves rostered on to help. Indeed parents are just as enthusiastic as the children. ‘I can’t believe how supportive and excited people are of the concept— even on days when the clouds are rolling in.’

Surrounded by vineyards, horse studs, and the Mornington Peninsula National Park, Balnarring is a semi-rural town and popular holiday spot known for its natural beauty. The beach itself presents endless learning opportunities with its sand dunes, rusty old pier, rockpools, nearby bush tracks and wetlands, she says.

‘There is no typical day in a beach environment. Every time we go, it is different—the children adapt. Unlike a climbing frame that is the same everyday, the beach constantly changes.

‘We have structured outings too. For example, we might walk along the beach to the Coolart Homestead, a nearby historic house and wetlands. It’s a great walk along the beach, over a wooden rickety bridge and through bushland.

‘A couple of weeks ago a dolphin jumped out of the water in front of the children…it was breathtaking. We also have racehorses regularly train along the beach, and last year we went fishing.

‘We share and experience lots of awe and wonder together.’ And the benefits of the beach setting are varied and many, she says. ‘When we are at the beach it is the ultimate uninterrupted time—I don’t have to answer the phone or door— and I can spend long periods of time playing and talking with the children.

It is unhurried and spontaneous and when we walk along the beach, the conversations are priceless.’ Being in nature means the children develop new skills, and relate to one another in new and interesting ways.

The relationships between the children, educators and families are stronger than ever, she says.

‘At the centre children often connect only with those children who share their interests and play preferences, whereas at the beach the connections change and they interact with children who they might not have even spoken to.’

‘When the parents collect children, they often stay and chat and we have had grandparents, siblings, dads and uncles participate in the program.’

Karen says children’s resilience has increased and they are more confident in their choices and abilities. Plus, she says, there are no fences or boundaries at the beach.

‘The freedom they get down in those big environments is so important.’ Beach day has only been cancelled twice. The first time was last winter during torrential rain, Karen explains.

‘I didn’t know how the children would cope being out in the wet for so long so we went on a rain walk out into the community instead. We got drenched from jumping in puddles but we were able to go back to a warm building to get changed.

‘The children always have extra clothes packed and we have wet weather coats and overalls for children and adults (from camping stores). Children bring their own gumboots.

‘When you let children play in the rain it is magic to watch. They have this amazing sense of freedom and all their senses are stimulated!’

The second time it was cancelled was for International Mud Day, which the centre celebrated for an entire week. ‘We called it ‘Mud Week’…We threw mud, sat in mud, slid down the slide in mud, swum in mud, rolled in mud, wrestled in mud, and danced in the mud.

We tipped buckets of mud down each other’s backs. The parents were muddier than the children!’

The beach days are also changing the culture of the centre environment, according to Karen, who says that the more the children go to the beach, the more they want to play outdoors.

‘We are spending less and less time inside and the children are using fewer traditional resources. The educators encourage them to notice what’s already in the centre environment.

‘For example, they talk about the clouds and what’s happening in the sky and look for changes in the weather and what nature has to teach us.’

Earlier this year, Karen realised the program had to become a whole centre philosophy if it were to succeed, so she asked the preschool community what learning in nature meant to them and together they added a new clause to the centre philosophy.

An Indigenous consultant who is introducing Aboriginal perspectives into the preschool’s pedagogy and practice assists Karen. She has also formed a network of like-minded educators from across the Mornington Peninsula, who share their journeys of educating in nature. This group will also access the indigenous consultant with funds Karen has acquired.

‘What I say to other educators is that you don’t necessarily have to leave your building to educate and connect to nature. You start with what you believe is best for children and then develop the practice.

‘A teacher at another service said to me, “but I don’t have a natural environment.” So I said, “don’t you have a great big oval next to you? Just take them on the oval and see what they do. Expose them to a big open space, and they will find the nature out there”.’

‘It’s also important to remember that you cannot enforce this on your staff.

‘If they are not passionate about being in the outdoors, it won’t work. They have to be on the same page as you. I am really lucky to have co-educators that have embraced the concept and are really keen to get down and dirty, so to speak!

‘They have come on this journey with me and roll up with a smile on their face every Friday —even if it’s cold, wet and windy!’

* Karen Anderson was named Early Childhood Educator of the Year 2013 in the Australian Family Early Education and Care Awards.


Staying safe an exercise in empowerment

Karen Anderson says reflection is important and children are reminded how to stay safe before, during and after each Kindergarten at the Beach session.

This helps them to ‘build confidence in their choices and abilities’ she says.

‘We are constantly adjusting, reflecting, talking and using our teaching skills to get children to assess situations themselves. It is about trusting the children in their decision-making. Similarly, it’s important to remember no child wants to get hurt.’

Interestingly, she says more accidents actually occur in the preschool’s centre environment than at the beach or in the bush. Indeed children were involved in preparing the original risk assessment document, with Karen asking them ‘ how will we be safe at the beach?’.

‘It was a really interesting exercise, as they came up with everything that I would have thought of,’ she says. ‘Part of working with children is having high expectations and never underestimating what they understand.’ This year Karen has changed the approach by writing a benefit to accompany each risk, as a way of teaching children about safety.

Even so, Karen and staff cannot afford to be complacent when on such outings. They must remain vigilant and remind the children each week of safety measures and any potential dangers.

Karen carries a whistle, which the children ‘respond really well to’ and she has taught them when to use the bush walker’s ‘cooee’ call. She also carries laminated cards to visually remind children of potential risks and dangers.

‘If we are doing a rock pool ramble, for example, I have pictures of dangerous creatures to remind them each week what they can and cannot touch.’

‘We remind them that rock pools are a creature’s home and to walk around them and not through them. And I remind children that at the beach we can’t always see what’s in the sand. I tell them if they find something sharp it’s an adult’s job to pick it up, and I carry a container for this which I show them each week.

She says staff all wear red hats and children know they have to be able to see a red hat wherever they go. Parents are also encouraged to dress the children in red or bright clothing each Friday.


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