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The importance of handcrafts for brain development

Written by Jennifer McCormack and Narell McKenna, April 2019

We are sitting together at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy, perched on the rocks and logs in the dry creek bed, chatting and crafting together. We’ve had a full day of adventurous play outdoors, some food and a rest and now we settle into our afternoon, taking time to connect and create. We are working with one child at a time, lots of eye contact, quietly chatting about what we are doing. Another child sits nearby, watching our progress and listening to our conversation while they wait to have a go. The rest are sleepily waking up, or playing together in the background, or hunting for the natural materials they need until we sing out that it is their turn to make some craft. It the afternoon, but it could be any era, any time, any community – sitting and making together has always happened.We like to do this, to spend time together to make beautiful, purposeful things with our hands. Threading, tying, weaving, sewing, felting, wrapping, rolling, twisting,finger knitting, hammering, cutting, sawing, whittling – we use our hands in so many ways. It’s tricky, some of these skills, but the children try because they have an inner drive to make and learn, and its such a delight to play with something you have made yourself. The little ones watch the older ones with interest, and the older ones are confident and competent after their long time of trying and persisting, and now can be helpers and teachers too.These children are developing an inner awareness that good things often take time to create, and that the process of making is every bit enjoyable as the product once it is finished. The time spent in purposeful, often repetitive, activity is soothing. Women have known this since ancient times and still find solace, reflection and awakening in the process of crafting together. We know it too. We talk about our day’s adventures while we are making things together, recalling the highlights, the funny bits and the sad bits. We work and we chat and we reflect, deepening relationships with each other and our world, making connections. Hand crafting helps us return to the rhythm of our bodies with a natural grounding quality. It helps us tune in to ourselves, and who we are in our community. A beautiful thing to do when we arise sleepily from an afternoon snooze, after a day of adventurous nature play.Often it is tricky. We stop and discuss how to position our hands, how to sequence the movements, and we slow things down because our brains are processing so much: up, down, open, closed, left, right, over, under, though, around, back, front, inside, outside. Little songs help, so we chant them as we roll and stitch and tie and snip … 

over the log, off jumps the frog … open shut, them, open shut them … roly poly, very slowly, … around and around and around we go, where we stop, nobody knows ….

The finger rhymes we sing at morning circle, and the singing that helps us move through the day all come back to remind us how we can place our fingers and move our bodies. We focus on one new skill at a time but within that there’s so much to integrate: body awareness, directions, physical strength and dexterity, qualities of materials, language, problem-solving, emotional resilience, breathing. So much learning.

As we make these simple crafts together, we imagine these children walking confidently into their future, knowing they can use their bodies with practical purpose, being able to act on their ideas with confidence in their belief system of “I can do things”. They’ll know how to tie things, or fold things, to twist things and puzzle things out. They’ll know they can have patience for the process. They’ll know how to approach a series of steps, call on different skills or viewpoints, to fix mistakes, and work backwards to see where it went wrong. They’ll have an ability to picture things as they think about them because they’ll be makers and thinkers.

They’ll have a set of skills and strategies to use when they need to soothe their minds and bodies and to reflect. They’ll understand that mistakes can sometimes be unravelled, and sometimes can’t be fixed at all, and you just have to think about what happened and start again or let it go completely and learn from the experience.

Just as it is impossible for us to work without immersion in nature, handcrafting is one of our cornerstone practices at Birdwings. The process and the product of handcrafting and creativity are part of who we are and how we relate to our world. It is part of how we move through our seasonal shifts with the children and how we celebrate the gift of childhood. 

Birdwings Nature co-founders Narell and Jennifer are artists and educators. We offer handcraft mentoring to educators and parents. Learn with us the traditional skills of weaving, felt-making, hand stitching, and many other nature crafts. See our website for details of our nature mentor training

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Fun with friends in forest school

We love our Birdwings Bush Club, Little Birdwings Forest Kindy and School Holiday Forest School programs for so many reasons:

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Children are developing a deep connection to wild nature,

plenty of nature play and adventure,

engaging physically with our bodies with challenging and risky play,

trying new skills,

all the learning about safety, self-awareness and well-being,

but mostly we love to have fun with friends in the forest,

and that’s one of the best reasons of all.

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Birdwings Bush Club for children 5-10 years and Little Birdwings for children 18 months – 6 years. Multi-age, child-led learning in nature on the Gold Coast.

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What does risk-taking really look like in early childhood?

One of the biggest hurdles to outdoor play is understanding the nature of risk-taking. We have found that the most challenging daily risk-taking children will experience in our nature immersion programs has little to do with wild nature play at all. Snakes, fire-work, water-play and tree-climbing are not as challenging for children as putting on their own clothes, trying new foods or saying farewell in the morning.

In moving beyond the security of our comfort zones where everything within is known and safe, the children have learned that each person’s zone of comfort is different, and that we take a risk when we step out of it. We learn about fear … safely. And together.

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Children are very often much more courageous and resourceful than we adults imagine they will be. In our distress at noticing children’s discomfort, we can do them a disservice by not trusting them to learn and grow in this moment. We might even find that in our attempts to provide comfort that we are teaching children that they cannot do it themselves.

It’s hard for adults to see the strength in children when it gratifies us to help them. It’s even harder when children are expressing frustration, sadness, fear or anger because they are out of their comfort zone and learning how to be present with that. We don’t want them to feel sad or fearful and we want to solve their problem.

But should we solve their problems?

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Offering bandaids for tiny scratches, carrying children’s belongings for them, carrying children when they can walk, packing their bags, opening lunch boxes, doing things that they can do themselves (or are capable of learning to do themselves) teaches children to rely upon others for the comfort, strength, courage and resourcefulness that we know is within them.

Do we make children learn tricky things before they are ready? No, of course not. We understand that risk-taking looks different for everyone, and is different again at various ages. But we will hold the vision for them that we believe they can learn, and we will provide lots of opportunities for practice and we will encourage a child to try even if it’s a bit frustrating. Learning how to try something new is often the biggest risk-taking lesson of all..

We encourage our other children at Birdwings to model courageousness for their new friends in these situations. When one of our friends is feeling uncertain, missing home, or a little scared of trying something new, the others know just what to say:

“Are you feeling worried? I miss my mum sometimes too. This is what I do to feel braver…”

“Do you want some help to pump up your courage? Here, I’ve got your hands”

“I never liked mango before but I kept trying it”

“Why don’t you watch us? Or try it this way instead?”

“We can sit together when you feel sad.”

“I’ll give you a clue. Watch out for this bit, it’s tricky”

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In this way the children are acknowledging risk that they’ve already overcome and helping each other to greet challenges. They know it’s hard to try new things when you don’t feel confident in your skills yet. They know that these feelings are real – whether it is concern about leaving your mum, not liking the look of that spider, the feel of mud on your toes, not wanting to eat that fruit, or uncertainty of walking through tall grass. They all know the feeling of risk – and they know it passes because we are learning together in a safe space. They have felt it, and we encouraged them to step forward and try anyway, and they realised they could.  We can be present, and we can be kind. We know we are all capable of great things.

I wonder, if we never ventured out into the world and just stayed in our comfort zones, might we have had the experiences and opportunities to build relationships, confidence, resilience, trust and sensible decision-making? I reflect on these children, and myself, and realise how wide our comfort zones have now grown, and how happy we are in them.

Children can do it, and so can the big-people. It takes vision, effort, courage, community support and a lot of empathy.  Stepping outside is a challenge for both children (and many adults too), however by the very nature of outdoor play we are embracing the possibility of risk in children’s play. As we go forward together we learn more about our world and how to be in it – and children are learning for themselves about the magnificent things they are capable of doing!

Birdwings offers a variety of nature immersion programs for children,  nature connection and forest school training for educators and parents, and incursions and excursions for kindergartens and schools. Birdwings are available for conferences and special events.

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Getting enough nature play?

We want our children to have a care-free childhood filled with special memories of family moments and playing with friends, just like our own was. We know it is a priority to make sure our children have free play time outside, but our lives as parents are so busy and childhood is increasingly scheduled, so that it is now difficult to ensure our children are getting enough nature play. Finding the balance between the pressures of modern living and our own values for freedom, creativity and play can be a real challenge families.

Children can experience the natural childhood you had – the joy and freedom of unstructured play with friends outside. We can help you! Come and play with us at Birdwings – relive your childhood with your own children at WildPlay Adventurers and Bush Kindy. Adults and children alike: we slide down hills, climb trees, splash in the creek, race billy carts, light fires and build cubbies. A couple of hours each week to be a kid again and enjoy playful moments with your little ones.

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If you can’t afford the time to play during the week, then let us support you. We can make sure your child has plenty of time and space to play, explore, dream and have adventures. Little Birdwings Forest Kindy will provide up to 7.5 hours in one day of wild nature connection for your children. There’s nothing else like it around – as the first Forest School on the Gold Coast providing 100% outdoor programs, we have families who drive from over an hour away to join us every week!

Attending once a week at Little Birdwings means your little one may have up to 90 hours of outdoor play time with us before Easter. Attending every week for the year means they will will very possibly have spent over 300 hours outside – through all seasons – playing, exploring, crafting, singing, snoozing, eating, discovering, sharing, communicating, imagining, creating, wondering and enjoying nature. Amazing growth and learning occurs when children have regular play outside, developing lifelong meaningful connections to wild nature.

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All this outdoor play builds up to being the BEST “school readiness” learning around. Through play with friends in nature, children become connected to their physical bodies, learn to embrace considered risks, become self confident and articulate. They are so caring and find ways to show it, both to each other and to nature. They can play without toys and tell the most marvelous stories. They can tell you about bush safety. They can sew, weave, paint and draw. They can tell you botanical names for things, and offer suggestions for how to overcome challenges. They can walk great distances over logs, rocks, through creeks and up hills.

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If you find it a challenge to offer enough outdoor play to your children, let us do it for you. We have options for every child.

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The challenges of childhood are meant to be tricky.

Challenges mostly come to us in our lives when we are ready for them. As infants we learn to walk after we have grown strong core muscles from rolling around on the floor, sitting and crawling. We are ready to move so the challenge is embraced. We learn to talk after listening to conversation and sounds around us, watching people interact socially and practicing the sounds for ourselves. When we need to communicate we are ready to try. Such challenges come to us naturally when we are in a place of comfort and ready shift into a new period of growth.

Sometimes in our growth we deliberately seek a new experience and at other times, moving around outside of the zone of familiarity is awkward, uncomfortable and requires a new skill set. New skill sets require practice. Practice means we need to navigate that space between what we know and don’t know, over and over again. One foot in the comfort zone, and another out, until we are ready to step out all together into a new space of learning. It sure does help when we have people to watch and learn from: mentors to guide and encourage us and help us reflect on our learning.

Challenge is meant to be a bit tricky. Challenge stretches us and asks us to find our more about ourselves. Challenge encourages us to reflect on our capabilities, our effort and our motivation. It hones our vision and it uplifts us when we finally realise that now we can do it, when we couldn’t before. Remember when that was hard?

Sometimes challenges come to us before we are ready. They take us by surprise and ask us to grow too quickly and learn too many new things at once. We might have to learn new skills as we go, and without a guide. We have to navigate a new environment that feels hostile and unfamiliar. These challenges will come to us in our lives – without a doubt! Children might greet such challenges when they are starting a new school, moving house or experiencing a family trauma. It can feel overwhelming, maybe traumatic. It doesn’t get easier as we get older, the challenges keep coming: learning to drive, moving out of home, starting new jobs, travelling, managing finances, being a parent, coping with grief and loss.

When those big challenges come, who will cope better? The person who has learned to embrace difficulty or the person who has had few opportunities to practice stepping confidently forward in their own learning? The person who understands that hurt, disappointment and confusion is temporary, and can shape us and teach us new skills – or the person who has never had the opportunity to feel such pain and grow through it?

As we cannot predict when major challenges will enter our lives, let’s encourage children to embrace the day-to-day ones first. Ask them to be responsible for their belongings, to pack their own bags, carry their things, do their own shoes laces up. Involve children in food preparation, tidying up and garden jobs because they are capable of doing this from an early age. Such responsibilities help children practice life skills and learn to apply effort to do a job well.

Let children have time to play outdoors with friends and without adults around. They’ll be ok! Allow time for children to address their disagreements before stepping in. Remember that we learn our social skills by being social – and this means experiencing arguments and disappointments from friends from time to time. It’s sad and frustrating at times. We are not responsible for our children’s happiness – but we can teach skills to reflect on empathy, emotional well-being, self-management and problem solving.

Let children feel a little pain. Let scratches bleed a little and watch the blood before it is covered up with a bandaid. Blood helps us heal. The pain of a bruise and the discomfort of a bump is our body’s way of saying “I got this! I’m healing!It’s going to take a little time so be patient!”, and we learn more about our bodies so that we don’t feel that again.

Children who are not provided with opportunities to discover their capabilities might experience every new difficulty as a major one because ALL the big challenges will come before they are ready! We, as parents and educators can be the mentors for children by providing a supportive challenge environment, and gently stretching the zone of comfort for children to learn that tricky things are not insurmountable: “We know its tricky and we know you can do it”.

Birdwings Nature offers Little Birdwings Forest Kindy for children aged 18 months to 5 years and Birdwings Bush Club for children aged 5 – 10 years. Birdwings offers nature forest school mentor training for educators who wish to deepen their practice in outdoor learning, risky play and nature connection.

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Birdwings Nature Retreat is forest school for grown ups.

“We wish you offered a day for grown-ups!”
“Can we play too?”
This has been a comment we have often heard from parents as they enrol their children into our Birdwings nature connection programs, or asked by colleagues when we discuss our work with nature pedagogy. Since opening our children’s nature connection programs in July this year, we received repeated requests for adults to be able to experience the joy, freedom and creative connectedness of the Little Birdwings and Birdwings Bush Club kids – so we listened. Birdwings hosted the inaugural intuitive nature connection retreat in our special spot in Guanaba deep in the Gold Coast Hinterland.

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“Botanical Wisdom” was the theme of this retreat, with the aim of increasing our awareness and intuitive connection to nature, held in an environment is so breathtakingly beautiful that instant connection to nature is unavoidable. The moment we crossed the creek and continue through the rainforest canopy to our base camp, we took a sharp breath in – and instantly sighed out in an exclamation of wonder and beauty. This is a healing, ancient and protected place.
Our movements throughout the day echoed the rhythm of our Bush Club day, beginning with a ceremony of connection and Acknowledgement of Country, preparing ourselves to be present to the learning of the Earth given to us today. For each of us on this day, the learning would be different. We traced the steps of our Bush Club children, walking the path to the waterfall for a play in the pure running water. We paused first for a deeply restorative yoga session by the creek, offered by our yoga teacher Angie Topham. A quick cuppa boiled on the Kelly Kettle, and a bite to eat before continuing along the track, then we were guided by our botanical expert, ranger Victoria Bakker, who spoke about plants with the warmth and familiarity of long-time friends. She introduced us to the healing qualities of red ash and bracken, we tasted wild edibles such as native raspberries, watercress and lomandra and we swooned over little native lobelia blossoms. We admired the strength and the resilience of the endangered pararistolchia preavenosa (Richmond Birdwing Butterfly vines) and discussed ecological balances: everything has its place and its purpose in the bush. We could not help but move into a state of awe and wonder, drawing our own metaphors for our individual experiences.

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The waterfall brought joy and play as we embraced the cold water, searched for water bugs and living things along the creek beds. We were even graced by the sighting of an endangered Richmond Birdwing Butterfly, after which Birdwings takes its name. It flapped slowly up high and soared on the breezes as high up as the treetops, signaling our return to camp – a challenging route over boulders strewn through the creek bed. This involved moving our bodies in new ways, breathing through the challenge and keeping sight of the end. We arrive and were rewarded with lunchtime and a relaxing afternoon of botanical watercolour painting with our Narell and weaving in the shade with Geira Jen, both artists loving being able to celebrate their creative connections to this place.


The day was an opportunity to embrace challenge and let ourselves move through it with grace and awe. There were moments of deep connection, playful joy, relaxed meanderings and thoughtful reflections. It was a wonderful opportunity to share the inner work that happens in our nature connection programs – this is the work we don’t discuss with children, and yet we see it unfolding within them week by week. For the adults who joined us on Sunday, this is a journey just begun and we hope that you create regular moments to reconnect in nature play for yourselves, to continue this deepening of spirit. Let nature do this work with you.


We are offering this retreat again this year – you can book your place here

https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=450362

We will also be offering training in our particular style of nature connection – perfect for educators beginning bush kinder programs or for experienced nature pedagogues wishing to deepen their practice with restorative, healing mentorship.

7 Retreat 2018

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Storytelling on the track: three ways to explore nature, culture and our relationships with both.

Oral storytelling is one of the foundations of children’s development of language and literacy. It’s also one of our foundation practices at Birdwings – plus everyone loves a story! Storytelling for us happens in so many different ways.

We share planned stories which often have props and scenery specially prepared. These stories we have written ourselves, or we retell from known stories and books that we love. They are chosen to celebrate seasonal change, to share cultural knowledge to acknowledge current interests of the children, explore relevant therapeutic themes or to purposefully share knowledge of local nature.

The children and Narell discovered prawns in the creek, so in this photo Narell is sharing the story of “Buding biba gawunga: Buding the deadly little prawn” by Sandra Delaney, a Quandamooka descendant. This story affirms and celebrates their discovery, adds new information about the behaviour and needs of freshwater prawns and shares their cultural signficance. The book is also written in Jandai language so we can have discussion about language too. Narell retold it with cloths for scenery and natural props for the characters. The children instantly began interacting with the props when the story was finished. Prop stories are a wonderful way to model the creative use of loose parts.

Jennifer often uses minimal props and just body gestures and facial expressions. This helps children develop listening skills, the ability to hold abstract pictures in their mind and to read body language. Here, Jennifer is sharing a Dreamtime story from northern NSW about the first fire. A scene set with fabric, and sticks were the only props. There were more cloths to represent flames, but these lay forgotten during the re-telling. As you can see from the engagement, this didn’t matter at all …

The stories come up again in conversations as we recall details in our daily work. Spontaneous storytelling frequently occurs along the track. These might be shared experiences told and retold while we walk, playful re-enactments when we stop to rest or eat. Very often, when we enter a familiar part of the track we will tell the story of what happened here last, or of what we saw, and then continue to share with each other what we learned, and what we’ve discovered since.

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And so stories become a part of our living relationships with each other and with our surroundings. This is the basis of Ecological Storytelling.

Birdwings offer training in Ecological Storytelling and nature mentoring. Check our schedule to see if there is training coming up or contact us to book a workshop for your centre or conference.

Ecological Storytelling Flyer - Birdwings

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Acknowledgement of Country

Birdwings borrows a name from the Richmond Birdwing Butterflies the children saw, counted, and now work to protect. This butterfly is native to the area and belongs here and we use its name as promise we have made to the land.

Richmond Birdwing male adult Todd Burrows
Richmond Birdwing male adult. Photo credit Todd Burrows.

We acknowledge this is Kombumerri land and offer our deep gratitude to the Ngarang-Wal Gold Coast Aboriginal Association Incorporated for their generosity in sharing this special, beautiful and significant place.

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We celebrate this land, this culture. We acknowledge the wisdom and experience of the elders of the past, present and emerging and promise to respectfully take care of the land, to constantly learn as much as we can about local indigenous knowledge, both cultural and environmental, and to share what we have learned.

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A Butterfly, a Vine and a Wish

Writen by Narell Neville, 2017

In a Bush Kindy deep in the rainforest at the base of Mt Tamborine. A place where the endangered Richmond Birdwing Butterfly (Ornithoptera richmondia) is known to live. The butterfly lays its eggs on the vines (Pararistolochia praevenosa) and the caterpillars eat this vine. However both the vine and the butterfly are endangered due to habitat destruction and a mimicking toxic weed. Here is their story.

At Bush Club one day in November 2017, we were relaxing at our base camp when we spotted a beautiful butterfly. It was very noticeable as it was so big. It had lots of colours on it too and appeared to be flying slowly. Could it be? Could it really be? I started to get excited, the children were wondering what is going on. Yes, from my knowledge this just had to be a Richmond Birdwing Butterfly. They are endangered, I knew that. They are only found in and around Mt Tamborine.

Richmond Birdwing male adult Todd Burrows
Richmond Birdwing male adult. Photo credit Todd Burrows.

Oh, I squealed for joy and tried desperately to film it. I missed iti but filmed the children and I discussing why the butterfly was endangered, why was the vine endangered too. What can we do about it? They came up with some great suggestions. From making pretend vines so the housing developers would destroy those and not the real ones, we would hide them in secret places that they couldn’t find. To making a contraption to catch all the butterflies to keep them safe.

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Photo credit Cam Neville

I told the children I would look into how we could get some vines to plant here. We then went walking as we did every day, way up high, halfway up the mountain where we spotted 5 butterflies. Wow, what an incredible day we had.

I then spoke to several different organisations which led me to Healthy Land and Water, who agreed to give us a grant of $500 to purchase the vines to plant for the butterflies. Finding vines to purchase was difficult, they are slow growing, don’t like to me moved or their roots disturbed and of course are endangered. Eventually I secured some vines from Mr Richard Bull who is the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network Committee & Gold Coast Area Representative.

Spotting butterflies

We invited Mr Todd Burrows from Land for Wildlife and Mr Richard Bull to come along and talk to us further about the butterflies and the vines. We showed them all the cool spots where the established vines are growing, where we see the butterflies and where we think would be some good spots to plant. We were so lucky to see some butterflies too.

We then organised a big planting day where we invited the families to come along and plant the vines with us. Every week we check our vines and water them. They are growing so well. We even found a caterpillar on one of them. We will soon invite interested people to come and look at what we have done. We are so proud. We hope the butterflies thrive and live forever.

Now that the vines are growing so well and we have seen caterpillars and butterflies on them we know the vine planting has been successful. In fact it has been so successful that the Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society recently wrote about us. “The GIPA team work with an Early Childhood Educator who takes kindergarten children to the site to plant vines and learn about conserving the birdwings. These grassroots efforts are making a difference to the population and sightings of the birdwings.”

Phase 2 is about seed collection and propagation of the seeds into seedlings for future planting.

Planting

This project is continuing into 2020 and beyond. We have planted and nurtured many healthy vines in the rainforests of Guanaba, and are delighted to see a healthy population of Richmond Birdwings returning to the Gold Coast. In 2019 we were interviewed by Nature Pacific in an episode from their Back From the Brink series, specifically about the progress of Richmond Birdwing Butterfly conservation in SE QLD. We are very proud of our work, and of the children for continuing the project with care for the future.