Q&A with Pottsville Community Preschool

Hear about Pottsville Community Preschool on the NSW north coast and how they've implemented their Nature Explorers programs

Could you tell us a bit about the Nature Explorers program and why it’s something your service participates in?

Nature Explorers was founded in 2016 by Pottsville Community Preschool Teachers: Sofia Machado and Cassy Read; both of who truly believe knowledge and education has the power to transform. Sofia had just returned from maternity leave and had been brewing on the idea of developing a nature pedagogy in the Australian environment and specifically within her community after years of researching models in Europe. Cassy, the Director, was aware of the extensive waiting list to our Pottsville Community Preschool and was looking at innovative ways to deal with this and to ensure continued revenue of the preschool.

With this passion and enthusiasm, we were spurred on by a fantastic team ready for a change. We launched Nature Explorers and our program has developed in many ways, but the aim has always been the same. From the outset, we have always made sure the program was focused on the EYLF outcomes. We connect children with their local community environment, supporting the development of knowledge and skills surrounding the importance of sustainability. By doing this, we foster environmental stewards within the children, developing a sense of passion to take care of our community and all that lives there.

We have watched a range of benefits emerge that we wanted to see but were not always sure if we could enable. For example, our communities have been strengthened - the children are recognised during our field excursions and people want to contribute their knowledge and skills.

Nature Explorers is not a bush kindy, we are a nature school that develops lifelong learning skills, that can transfer within any setting in children’s lives. We have developed an educational program in a literal and figurative sense without walls, where children and educators learn collaboratively in the environment and in all types of weather. We are making sure that we continually evolve and seek the input of our children into the program. Through this approach, we have harnessed creative thinkers and problem solvers, able to adapt to the constant changes in our societies.

What are some of the learnings and skills you’ve seen children, educators and families develop because of the program?

As part of Nature Explorers philosophy, we truly believe in using EYLF principles to support our practices and provide high quality learning opportunities for children. We also believe in making children visible and active members of their community and sharing their achievements and learning with families.

Children are not only known by local universities, they have contributed in their field studies, they participate with the local Dune Care in regeneration of the local beach. From being recognised at the local shops, by the bus driver on the local route, you name it, children have become participating members in our local community which has developed a passion to connect and take care of their environment.

As educators, we love to hear parents report to us how their children have taught them things about their area and are going exploring to places on the weekend with their child leading the adventure. The rewards for us as educators by taking a step back and facilitating the children’s interests has led us on some wonderful new adaptations in our program. We have an inherent responsibility to support children to ensure their voices are heard and continually challenge ourselves to reflect on how well we are achieving this.

Do you have any suggestions for activities or programs that services without access to bushland areas could implement when it comes to teaching environmental sustainability and supporting play-based learning?

We want children to be able to navigate within their own environment. In this way, Nature explorers can be contextualised to suit any local environment whether it is the beach, the bush or the city.

The best thing that can be done is to make children visible within your own community, make their voice heard and actions seen. Start small. Begin with walks in the local community. Talk with the children what they see, hear and feel when they are outside and allow them to develop play from this time. More often than not, this will lead you to develop the best ideas and paths to follow.

You can always approach local businesses, talk with your community about what you are doing and allow the children opportunities to do the same. Your local network is a great resource. If you don’t have anyone, you can build a great network by asking and looking. Be prepared for some setbacks - we certainly had them - however, if you keep returning to your passion, beliefs and core values, you will develop great connections for your program. We have been pleasantly surprised how receptive and keen people are to collaborate with us when we do this. But then, why would people not want to be around enthusiastic, creative young minds of the future!?

We believe that play is the foundation for learning, this is supported by reams of research; (we all know this). We encourage our educators in small teams to truly unpack and critically reflect on what play based learning means in the context of our service. What does it look like for the child? What does it feel like for the child? What concessions do we need to make as teachers? Critically reflect on how the teacher enabled learning outcomes during play.

How does the program (or other practices you teach) support children to become environmentally responsible? Can you share some examples of practices that you’ve found particularly effective?

Both the Preschool and our Nature Explorers programs encourage children to become environmentally aware as well as practicing sustainability. This is systematically embedded throughout all our practices, embracing three components of sustainability: environmental, financial and social.

For example: we have litterless lunches; we recycle our scraps for the compost; we make banana skin fertilizer; we have an educator who is passionate about gardening so she recently participated in a permaculture course so we can sustain our soil; we do not use glitter (it is not sustainable or environmentally friendly) we build connections with key community groups so they can share their knowledge with our children. We have developed community partnerships with Dune Care, Landcare, the Seed Library, Tweed Valley Wildlife Carers, Mens Shed, Waste Warriors, Burringbar Rainforest Nursery, Kingscliff TAFE and Franc Krasna, Indigenous Cultural Educator and the Indigenous Community. These community organisations are incorporated into the daily sessions we implement with children to provide a rich and interconnected learning environment.

Children learn the names of local native plants as well as weeds, they become the experts in their own families, transferring knowledge out into the wider community; enabling families to grow their knowledge ensuring that the community becomes empowered - the drop in the ocean analogy - the children are the drop in their community and the knowledge they are learning ripples out.

How do you continue to improve on the work you are doing with the Nature Explorers program?

We remain so excited after taking an almighty leap and implementing the program as a pilot over four years ago! When your work is a passion it is easy to want to improve, to inspire and grow what you do.

If you want to be on the path of continuous improvement you need to be actively looking for ways to improve your program - dive deeper; unpack ideas further, examine theory and your philosophies. This requires everyone to invest time.

Be prepared to take a risk - especially as a leader. We seek guidance from the department, our committee, our families and always ask feedback from our community partnership members.

Nature Explorers have a passionate and driven team who are supported to incorporate their strengths, knowledge and passion into their daily interactions. We started with 12 children and 2 educators for children aged 3-5 - we now have 149 children (aged 1 to 5 years old) and 13 educators. This has been achieved because we have creative thinkers, problem solvers, and the desire to ensure the viability of the environment and the community - this next generation of children are the ones to be able to achieve this (if we teach them now). Over the last four years we have seen education empower and transform not only children, but our team, families and community.

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