Reconnecting with the natural world and each other

Darebin Creek Bush Playgroup

On this particular day, the weather gods have worked their magic. It is spring perfection out along the Darebin Creek Trail in Thornbury. Birds are busy chirping, skipping through the native tangle of tree branches and bushes that flank either side of the path. The gentle breeze is carrying scents of wattle and eucalyptus. Around the bend, a group of young families are making the most of the glorious afternoon. A squeal of joy beckons more little feet to rush over to a log where a blue tongue lizard has found a comfortable lazing spot. This is just one of the discoveries these kids will make today. It’s bush playgroup and the discoveries each week are aplenty.

There are several groups that meet here and around the bush trails in Thornbury, on various days of the week. One such playgroup meets here on Thursdays. Today around a dozen parents are here with one or two children. There are a few Dads getting amongst the play and grandparents, too. Playgroup leader Victoria Milne welcomes them all onto the mat to begin the session. Everyone is in a cheery mood as the sun shines and spring flourishes around them. Yet this genuine warmth appears to be the staple of the group, all the year through.

“At the end of last term we made hot choccies here when it was raining. It was just really nice. It’s lovely,” said Pru, mother of Henry.

The fact that this playgroup is outside in a natural space makes a difference to the mood of the children and the parents. Klyti said that she always feels happier after coming to Bush Playgroup.

“I also enjoy coming and hanging out with these beautiful people and just spending time in nature with Robin, my son.”

“It is nice to meet other people who are like-minded and hear what they are doing with their kids.”

“So far I have learnt to enjoy Robin jumping in mud (laughs), which I was quite hesitant to do before, because of washing clothes etcetera but here it is really encouraged and he just loves it. He is definitely in his element here and I think it has been good for me too, to let go of any inhibitions that I have.”

This feeling is shared among the group. Most acutely felt by bush playgroup facilitator Victoria.

After returning to work as a teacher after having her first child, Victoria felt anxious and unsettled.

This led her to reassess her life and work.

“I did not want to go to a job when I was not passionate about it anymore when I had a small child that I was passionate about. If I was going to work when I had small kids, I wanted it to be something important to me and I felt like it was making a difference and having a positive impact on the environment.”

One thing Victoria did know was that she felt better in the great outdoors. It helped her shed her anxieties and the anxieties she could see growing in the children within a school environment. She said she could see the pressures on children growing, and play and outdoor time declining.

“I have always found that when I am in nature, I am much more relaxed. It is so good for your mental well-being as well. I just thought, if it is like that for me, what’s it doing for our kids and then I discovered this massive research around kids and the benefits of being in nature for kids for their development and also their mental well-being.”

“Play is what kids need and they need it all the way through primary school as well. Being a primary school teacher, I see the demands on children and how schools are constantly trying to cut down playtime, have organized activities. Kids don’t get out and just play in the outdoors anymore. We are seeing all kinds of sensory problems arise in kids because they are not exposed to mud, wind and rain and all of those sorts of things. The more that we can get children outside and playing, the better.”

Victoria has had Forest School training and continues to research the benefits of nature play. She said that the research is mounting. This is in response to the great shift of humankind in a short period of time.

“We use to roam the streets, as kids we would go to the vacant block and go down to the creek and go fishing for yabbies.”

Victoria explains that according to Angela Hanscom, a leading paediatric occupational therapist, when she was growing up, on average children spent between 4-6 hours outside playing, but now, some children are lucky if they get an hour.

Since becoming a mother, Victoria has said that it has reminded her to take notice of the little things.

“We always find something, little bugs or a big caterpillar was found on this rock this morning. It is just taking the time to notice those things. We often do a walk down to the creek and do some nature spotting along the way. Bush playgroup created sensory experiences for children; the kids run up and down the mound, getting use to uneven ground and falling over and feeling the bark under their fingers and getting back up and having another go and climbing up on the rocks to see what that feels like. None of it is rocket science but parents don’t think of giving their children these experiences.”

“It is taking that time that kids need in this kind of space. It is getting the bonding time with their child as well.”

At Forest School Victoria said that they try to build self esteem by giving children the autonomy over their learning and learning through play. A lot of it is unstructured playtime in natural spaces, also learning to use tools.

“Children learn to manage their own risk. They do some risky things like climbing trees or things like that, things that people would see as risky activities for kids but they learn how to manage their risk.”

“I think that is so important for kids today. Many kids don’t have a backyard, they’re on screens all the time, they just don’t have access to the great outdoors like we did when we were kids. I think it is just giving them that exposure to those kinds of things and letting them learn through doing, that is amazing.”

Victoria encourages parents to visit different spaces and explore the wonderful environments that Melbourne and surrounds have to offer, and in her experience, she sees a bit of risk as an essential part of learning, of laying the foundations for resilience in later life.

“There are pockets of this kind of bushland throughout Melbourne, you can find little pockets of green, that hasn’t changed, but peoples perception of what they will allow their children to do has changed. The whole stranger danger thing I understand as a parent, but I also think about the risk of not giving our kids any risk.”

“By taking away all the risk that you expose them to, they are not learning to be resilient, they are not learning to manage their risk and they really just grow up in a little bubble. Teachers are finding that kids are not having that resilience and they are growing up without it now.”

Pru said that living in the city does impact their lifestyle as they live in a small town house with a small back garden, as many other young families do. She and her husband actively seek out green spaces.

“We know where all the great parks are in our area and coming to something like this is a really great planned activity to do. We have the benefit of doing that. I love it. It’s so good.”

Victoria said that most parents would walk past this natural play space and head for a playground, thereby missing out on rich learning experiences that are free and commonplace. She sees it as her role to guide the parents and show them what to look for, how to incite curiosity- what to explore and where to play in safe ways.

Pru loves the way Victoria runs the group, allowing the parents to relax and learn, alongside the kids. 

“This is such a beautiful part of Melbourne. Victoria sets up all the activities so it is really easy to come, you come for two hours, you have all these lovely activities in the bush and then Victoria packs it all up. All the activities she does are lovely little nature activities, such as bush arts and crafts.”

Everyone seems as ease, enjoying one another’s company.

Victoria did not set out to build a community, it was more about the children and getting them in contact with nature from a young age, but that has evolved and changed.

“When I started running the playgroup I realized the amazing connections you have with parents who come to these things and you see them having them with each other as well because they have so much in common and generally they are diverse people, but they all have that common love of being outdoors. I just really underestimated the power of that community when I started.”

Klyti remarks how supportive the people have been.

“Having something like this, it feels like we are doing something special.”

There is a lot of support here. I wasn’t feeling great last week and the parents said, ‘You go and relax, we can look after Robin’. That was so nice, the support.”

As the group began that afternoon, circled around the mat, they sang their own Acknowledgement to Country song. Their voices came together and they all held hands, two things that come naturally to children and bring about contentment, familiarity, safety and joy. One can’t help but think, we lose that as adults, that connection with the people around us. We lose time outside meandering, smelling the roses.

Two crucial things are going on at this bush playgroup. The children are getting time. Time with their parents, time outside, time with other kids, and time to play. This they will carry through life, skills and an appreciation for the outside world that they will need to care for it through profound change. The secondary aspect of this playgroup is about the well-being of the parents, a thing often put to the side. Here the parents find some reprieve from the busyness of the world, they can reconnect with nature, with each other and most strongly felt, themselves and their inner child.

 Article by Sinead Halliday

To join a Nature Play Learning playgroup visit: https://www.natureplaylearning.com.au/bushplaygroup

Check out some moments captured at bush playgroup below.