Using nature as a teaching tool at Alstonville Community Preschool

Alstonville Community Preschool, on the Far North Coast of NSW, was built with a deep belief in the benefits of nature play as a teaching tool, resulting in a natural and engaging learning spaces both inside and out.

Alstonville Community Preschool, on the Far North Coast of NSW, began as a pack away service operating from a church hall in 1972. In 2013, with a change in management from the Church to a community based Management Committee, the preschool was tasked with finding a location for the town’s first purpose built preschool. In 2015, community land on a local park was granted from Council, and funding was provided through a Capital Grants program.

Educators, children and staff were consulted by the new Management Committee to contribute to the design of the new building and play spaces. Every decision made reflected the deep belief and commitment of educators in the benefits of nature play as a teaching tool. In planning for the inclusiveness and accessibility of play spaces, families of enrolled children with high physical support needs were consulted early on, for additional insight and advice.

What has resulted are natural and engaging learning spaces both inside and out, The design allows educators to be responsive to the needs of children throughout each day, with simultaneous use of the various learning environments providing ‘pockets’ of play for individual and small groups of children i.e. quiet spaces, creative spots, and areas for ‘busy’ and active play.

Indoors, two large playrooms are filled with natural light from high windows that frame the trees of the parkland surrounding the preschool, effectively bringing the outside in. The use of natural materials and loose parts reflect the philosophy and values of the preschool and feature heavily in resources for learning and in room décor. The playrooms open onto a wide covered deck which connects the indoor and outdoor learning environments, allowing plenty of space for play ‘outdoors’ even on the heaviest rainy days, of which there can be many on the North Coast.

In the outdoor environment, established trees provide shade and spaces for climbing and hiding. Open grassed areas provide space for active play and the pathways that connect these learning spaces ensure flow from one ‘room’ to the next and seamless play opportunities.

Strategic planting has been used to divide these ‘rooms’, including recent development of a bush tucker garden which adjoins the central sandpit area. Educators and children have been purposeful with all planting, choosing plants for shade and for bush food, and plants to attract local birds and wildlife. Well established vegetable gardens provide an opportunity for children to grow their own food for cooking experiences, with any extra produce stocking a market stall for families.

The Gumnuts Nature Learners group, as part of their preschool day, go to a learning space outside the fence in the adjacent park, that they have affectionately named “Bushworld”. These children spend their time immersed in nature, planting, foraging and observing. They enjoy locating evidence of possum drays in nearby trees, constructing bush humpies, and helping clear and develop the land there. Conversations have begun with Council and local Landcare groups for their advice and assistance in the development and regeneration of this space.

The outdoor learning spaces are in continual development, and recently the creek and mud patch areas were redeveloped with water conservation in mind. Children and families worked with local artist Sam Wortelhock, to create a colourful mural, which has transformed a large brick wall, creating a beautiful backdrop to stimulate play ideas and themes through the local wildlife habitats, flora and fauna depicted. These projects and two other murals completed under an artist in residence project with local Aboriginal artist Uncle Digby Moran in 2017, were funded through Quality Learning Environments and Community grants.

“Nature is a tool to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves.”

Stephen Moss

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