'Nature schools' becoming increasingly popular

hamner forest
Backers say it's about giving children and their families the option to do something different. Photo credit: Getty

By Emma Hatton for RNZ

The demand for one-day nature or forest schools is on the rise, with advocates saying if schools do not provide more outdoor-based learning, the demand will continue to grow.

At Battle Hill farm in Pāuatahanui in Wellington, about a dozen children aged between four and 12, gather every Wednesday for nature school.

They start the morning with a hui to decide what the day will look like, possibly geo-caching, tree climbing or making damper to eat over the fire they will build. They also check the weather and debrief on any safety issues.

Claire's son Jake has recently started coming, but she said the family and his school had already noticed a huge change in behaviour.

"We've had a lot of problems with Jake participating in school for the last few years, so he doesn't do any work at school. It's a lot of school refusal, not wanting to join in.

"He started nature school this term... huge turnaround."

The organiser Leo Smith said the programme was about giving children and their families the option to do something different.

"We have the families that are really into the outdoors and they know that their children need a balance in life and need this aspect of what we offer.

"And then we're getting more and more enquiries from families who have children with diagnoses like ADHD, autism, sensory processing disorder... and the school system doesn't always work that well for them."

Pupils who attend the school need to get an exemption from the Board of Trustees under section 71 of the Education Act. It records the pupil as present so as not to affect attendance, meaning the school technically remains responsible for that child while they are at the one-day programme.

Smith said that liability aspect, and safety concerns were usually the main reason for any pushback from schools, but most were onboard.

There were no official numbers for the amount of pupils with exemptions, as schools are not required to report that data to the Ministry of Education, but nature education specialist Celia Hogan said in five years New Zealand had gone from one one-day school to more than 30.

"Partly that comes from a lot more early childhood education centres running nature excursion programmes and then when [those children] get to school they've already recognised all the benefits of those programmes and then they're missing out when they get to school.

"Parents are asking for this, and if the schools aren't able to provide it [then] one-day schools are the next best option."

Kathy Broadhead runs one-day programmes across the Bay of Plenty and confirmed the demand was definitely there.

"I'm getting a lot more enquiries and I've got a waiting list now. I'd just love to see it in schools so that every child in New Zealand was having these opportunities."

She also ran training programmes for teachers to help them bring more nature-based learning into a typical classroom day.

"Teachers do so much and they give so much and they have a lot of boxes that they have to tick and I guess for them from the outside looking in they think 'oh it's just another thing... another thing I have to do'. So it's just breaking down those barriers to see that it is easy, and it can be done in your school.

"You see this relief wash over them and they think 'I can do this, this is doable'."

One school that does not need that sort of help though, was Waikino School in Waihi.

Principal Joanna Wheway said everyone there did at least one day a week in the bush.

"[In] 2017 when I got here, and I found out we owned a whole forest at the back of the school... I thought right, I know what we're doing with that."

They piloted one class, monitoring behavioural and learning changes in the children, before deciding to roll the programme out across the entire school.

Waikino School also invited pupils from other schools to join in the programme for one day a week, currently about 15 pupils come.

Wheway said it was not something authorities, including the Educational Review Office, understood particularly well yet but was certain it was the right fit for her pupils.

"Sometimes it's just being brave enough to do it. That's a scary thing for principals and teams, to just go 'well we're going to throw this out and just go with our gut'."

All agree funding the programmes was one of the biggest barriers, with most operating on a user-pays basis at a cost of anywhere between $50 and $100 a day per child.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of Sector Enablement and Support Katrina Casey did not respond to RNZ's questions related to funding but said schools knew their students best and it made sense for them, alongside whānau, to decide if a learning opportunity outside of the classroom was best.

"Learning can take place anywhere and educational experiences outside the classroom can help reinforce learning by supporting students to make connections between what they have learnt in the classroom and the world beyond the classroom."