A four-year-old girl scrambles to the top of a steep, slippery slope, her face flushed with triumph. Just 20 minutes earlier, she had been clinging to a tree root at the bottom of the hill, too scared to move. This sort of achievement is what bush kindergarten is all about.

“Bush kindies” in various forms have been popping up around the country in the past few years as early childhood educators tap into the learning opportunities available beyond their centres’ walls.

Discovery Kindergarten in the Porirua suburb of Whitby is one of the latest centres to head for the hills. Since term four last year, teachers have been taking the eight oldest children into the nearby bush for two hours every week.

Teacher Amy Robinson has been the driving force behind Discovery’s Ngahere Tamariki programme. “I first heard about Danish forest kindergartens when I was doing my teacher training. Something about that sat really well with me, about taking the classroom outside, out in nature,” she said.

After attending a bush kindergarten workshop at the Whānau Manaaki Kindergarten Association’s annual conference last year, Robinson tagged along with nearby Plimmerton Kindergarten’s bush programme to find out more.

“The teacher there shared with me some of her documentation and I got a good idea of what was involved and what I’d need to be aware of. I read articles and watched documentaries, got support from my team.”

Robinson grew up in Whitby – she attended Discovery Kindergarten herself – and was already familiar with the bush tracks, reserves, lookouts and walkways that the suburb is well known for. Having native bush to explore literally outside the kindergarten gates is a huge plus, although distance hasn’t put off other centres.

Plimmerton Kindergarten children walk an hour each way to reach the bush and Tai Tamariki Kindergarten children walk from their centre at Te Papa through Wellington’s city streets to get to Mt Victoria.

Discovery Kindergarten head teacher Stephanie Jacobs said the children adored Ngahere Tamariki. “They go on and on about it. For some of them, the development has been sharing [with their peers at mat time] about it. There’s been environmental ownership – like picking up rubbish in the bush. This is ‘their’ bush; they have built such an ownership of it.

“For some the development has been the stamina to go out in the bush. Their parents have said that before they could hardly walk down the street and after they’ve been on this they’ll take [their parents] all the way up the top of the hill.

“For some of them it was a new experience to even be in the bush. Being off the trail and being able to slide on their bums – it was a little bit of freedom that they don’t usually have,” said Jacobs.

Robinson said the teachers were seeing children build new relationships, support each other and develop in different ways at Ngahere Tamariki.

“There was a child who was quite quiet at kindy, but on bush kindy he wouldn’t stop talking. He was fascinated by everything,” she said.

Another child who exhibited some challenging behaviours when at kindergarten changed noticeably when in the bush. He happily took on responsibility and leadership and was calmer.

Jacobs said it had also been a learning experience for the teachers and pushed them out of their comfort zones.

At first, two teachers went out with the group, although that is no longer possible since ongoing government funding cuts forced the association to reduce teachers’ hours and non-contact time. One teacher and a parent volunteer take the group out each week, while another parent volunteer stays at the kindergarten to keep the ratios up.

In preparation, Robinson wrote risk assessments, procedures, policies, and information for parents. She contacted the council about potential poisons in the area, sourced heavily discounted and donated rain jackets, pants and hi-vis vests from Wellington company Toi Design and set up a closed facebook group to share information and photos with Ngahere Tamariki parents.

The Discovery team welcomes inquiries and visits from other centres, and has a number of tips for anyone looking to set up a similar programme:

  • Get support from your team and your parent community
  • Watch documentaries and read articles about New Zealand and overseas forest kindergartens (especially the Danish version)
  • Tag along with an existing programme and find out what set-up documentation is already available
  • Spend time in the bush you’re intending to explore to uncover risks and opportunities