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What do you do when it rains? (and other frequently asked questions)

An all-weather, outdoor early childhood program is a unique experience (but fortunately one that is gaining popularity in Australia), and one that comes with many considerations regarding children’s safety. Here’s a list of questions we are most commonly asked about our Little Birdwings Forest Kindy program – and with no surprise they are mostly about how we stay safe together when the weather in Australia can be extreme.

What do you do when it rains? We keep playing! We have the best adventures on rainy days. Rain intensifies our visual world with new colours, smells, sounds, and creatures to observe. The environment looks different and the landscape can change dramatically when it rains: puddles, mud, flowing water and little waterfalls where there were no waterfalls before. There’s so much to discover. We put on our raincoats and boots. We put up shelters to keep our things dry – and then out we go to explore and play. Our creeks may overflow in heavy rain, but there is always plenty for us to explore and discover a safe distance away. Parents always pack several changes of clothes and shoes so we can get warm and dry when we come back. For sleep time, we are snug as a bug in our tent, wrapped in cotton sheets and woolly blankets.

What about when it storms? Playing outside in the rain is wonderful fun, but it is silly to play outside in a storm. We keep track of weather warnings, check the radar often, observe our environment and make decisions based on this information. We are a mobile program and so we may notify parents that we are changing sites, or in the event of sudden and dangerous changes in weather we will follow our procedures and evacuate. Very occasionally we may need to cancel the day’s program due to severe weather warnings.

Here’s a video of exactly how much fun we have in the rain, and for more reading on all-weather play have a look at “There’s no such thing as bad weather “.

What do you do about toilets and nappy changes? Many of our children are still in nappies and we set up a change area in a comfy and shady spot near our base camp to tend to their needs. Parents supply nappies and wipes as required. For older children we have a camping toilet available, and basic handwashing facilities. We encourage bush wees and teach children how to do this safely and with privacy. If we are on an adventure too far away from the toilet, we carry a trowel to dig a hole, but this is rarely required. 

What about the snakes and spiders? We love to see snakes and spiders! They are very interesting creatures! We model safe play in the wild with conversations, movements, games and stories: teaching children to love nature and be cautious and aware of their safety at the same time. Snakes and spiders are present with us, and most of them are non-venomous and completely fascinating. We respect their space and watch them with awe. Some creatures are venomous, however we rarely see them because they will keep to themselves, and we don’t go where they are likely to be. We always carry a complete first aid kit, and we are never complacent about venomous creatures. The more we know about our environment, the better we can make decisions about where and how to play. We have extensive risk assessments for our exploring.

How often do you eat? Three times a day. The children bring their own healthy food packed in line with our nutrition and sustainability policy, and we have a bowl of shared fruit salad in the morning, which the children have helped to prepare. We eat picnic style on the mat, so finger food is best (and messy or drippy food such as yogurt, soups, stews and spaghetti are a challenge to eat without a table). We encourage nude food, so all food should be packed without any plastic wrapping, and healthy food closest to its natural state. We encourage children to try new tastes all the time, so variation in lunch food is encouraged. The children drink their water at each meal break and in hot weather we have extra drinks to keep little bodies hydrated and cool. More information can be found in our food policy. Here’s what our fruit chop time looks like:

Where do you sleep? We sleep outside on our mat, under the shade of the trees. It’s absolutely delightful to lay there breathing fresh air, listening to the birds, the wind and the sweet lullabies that we sing softly to the children as they fall asleep. The children sleep about an hour and wake up hungry and ready for more play. We provide sheets, pillows and blankets, and in wet weather we will put up a tent to keep our slumbering friends warm and dry. This is what our sleep times look (and sound) like:

My child loves to play outside but we haven’t done much wild play yet. How will they go? Our program is adaptable to all children at any age and level of experience with nature play. We teach children the skills they need to be independent and confident, however having said that, it can be a bit of an adjustment for someone who hasn’t had much wild play, because learning new skills can be challenging. We see the greatest development in children’s confidence and resilience when they enjoy regular time active outdoors in wild nature with their families and friends (bushwalking, riding, camping). Children will settle quickly into our fun playful adventures when they enjoy adventures with their families too.

Adventurous play is fun – here’s what it can look like for us! For more reading on the benefits of nature play, read “Balanced and Barefoot“, and our own blog post on risky play.

My child has never been in care before. Maybe they aren’t ready yet? Almost every child that has started at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy has never been in the care of someone else before. We build a beautiful and trusting rapport with children and parents from an early age. We have a wonderful and gentle process to help children transition into care, but we have found the most successful transitions happen when parents are 100% trusting that their children will be safe and happy with us. It is very much a partnership that we enter into, and we work closely with families to support children’s independence and exposure to wild nature play. Children feel secure when they know their parents have trust in their ability to adapt and grow in new environments. It may be a process, but we will support each other.

I think the day is very long, can we do just half a day? Our day feels like it goes by so quickly! Our play is so fun that time moves differently, and there is plenty of time for rest and relaxation between our adventurous play periods. We are very in tune to children’s needs and adjust our day accordingly. 

Every day is different at Little Birdwings Forest Kindy, and that’s as it should be, our program is like nothing else around. We have loads of fun together, in the words of Nina: “It’s a bit funny!”

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Storytelling and Trauma: supporting children in times of stress

Written by Jennifer McCormack and Narell Neville, 2019.
Sometimes children are exposed to tragedies. Traumatic events such as natural disasters, illness and accidents won’t wait for children to be tucked away to protect them from worry. Children may be involved directly in traumatic events, or perhaps as onlookers observing the processes of others while emergency preparations occur, feeling the impressions of the fear and concern of the community, or surrounded by conversations about about the progress of events. All of these impressions can quickly become very overwhelming for children as they strive to organise their thoughts and feelings, and work out what it means to them.
Close to home, right now, the Scenic Rim, Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Northern NSW communities are currently amidst the tragedy of bushfire which is having devastating effects upon natural bushland, private properties and the loss of many structures. Locals have had to enact emergency plans to protect homes, livestock and evacuate their families. Other families have members from emergency services who are helping to support those in trouble. Children all over these areas have seen and breathed the smoke, dust and hot winds. They have heard the emergency vehicles and seen the water-carrying planes and helicopters that have been working around the clock to settle the fires. Children in rural areas may have a parent who is volunteering their time to help with the crisis, working long hours and coming home tired, dirty and smoky.

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019

We have many families in our local Birdwings community within this area (who are all safe) but who have been on high alert in preparation for the possibility of wild bushfire changing their lives forever. This week, the children will be talking about the fires, they will be sharing experiences, discussing the things they know, and watching each other for shared emotional responses as they talk to understand what has happened in their world.
We plan to allow children the space to talk about it, and we will explore it creatively together if need be through our Ecological Storytelling approach. The sooner the better. We find storytelling the most successful way to help children understand big events in their lives. Storytelling allows children to listen and identify with the parts of the story that makes sense to them. Even the act of listening to a story about their experience is an empathic acknowledgement that this is a thing that happened and that the child was a part of it. Traumatic events presented in the form of a metaphor helps to separate the child from the direct experience but will still tap into the emotions and offer support in the form of courage or some ideas that children could try for themselves outside of the story to find resolution and understanding.

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Photo Credit, Narell Neville, 2018

Storytelling may be presented in various modalities and telling stories through many forms of creative art will offer a range of access points to children’s emotions and understanding. Painting, drawing, clay, dance, drama, even jokes, will help children to find their place and organise their thinking, recognise their emotions. Playing with the elements gives children an open-ended experience to explore their thoughts. In the case of fire, we are fortunate that our Birdwings children have had experience already with fire: they know how to light it, to tend it and keep themselves and the environment safe. They have made fires of their own and enjoyed the big bonfire at our Winter Festival. They know what to watch out for when a fire is lit, and how to care for it and the space around it so that it doesn’t go out of control. We are not going to explore fire again in our current situation, until the crisis is gone (and the fire ban is lifted!) but this background of knowledge can be easily explored in story to remind children they have some power in their experience.

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Photo Credit Jennifer McCormack, 2019

At Birdwings we have faith in children’s abilities to learn and process information. Children are very capable about communicating their knowledge and ideas, given the space, time and trust to do so. Children have so many ideas of their own about how to help in times of crisis, and storytelling may be one way to begin a conversation with children to hear their suggestions about what to do, how to avoid danger, how to create a plan to stay safe.
Through playful and gently therapeutic approaches we know children will take what they need from their experience. We have a story that we like to tell in high fire danger, however the whole experience will be guided by the children, with the children taking control of the situation. After we tell the story, we often invite the children to retell it to each other, and that’s when we hear so many great ideas, solutions and deep thinking about the situation.
We hope your families and homes are safe, and that you might consider asking your child to share their experience and knowledge with you. You may be surprised at the depth of wisdom they hold, and the relief that someone is there to listen. Here are some other useful resources to explore bushfires with children:

For more information about our storytelling approaches at Birdwings, we have upcoming training in Ecological Storytelling and Advanced Forest School Mentoring. For more information about our programs, please visit Forest School Programs

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Photo Credit, Cameron Neville, 2019

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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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