Spring is beginning to dawn in the north-eastern corner of Victoria. The rhododendrons are beginning to bloom in vibrant hues of fuchsia, as are the delicate blossoms in confetti-like pastel pinks. The green buds high up in the tree tops have been soaking up the sun rays as their roots absorb the rain. Children are busily exploring the growth of the new season. Bright Wild Things Playgroup are noticing the change, a tad more than most. Together they embark on weekly adventures in and around their natural reserve. There is something about the fresh air. It is good for you. Out here the kids do not stop for mud or puddles or frost. They see, they hear, they listen. They adapt as they go. They are in the moment; Mother Nature guiding them through the land.  

Merryn Steer is grateful to be part of the wonderful little community of Bright.

“We are very spoilt by our natural environment, being surrounded by beautiful bushland, mountains and creeks to splash in.”

Nestled at the foothills of Mount Hotham and the Alpine National Park, Bright experiences seasonal change with distinction. Bitter cold in the wintertime and sometimes severely hot in the summertime. Bushfires are always a hovering risk when the weather heats up and the winds pick up. The ice melts from the top of the mountains and flows down into the streams, creeks and rivers. A swim in the summer is refreshing, to say the least.

Merryn is the leader of Bright Wild Things Playgroup, our Playgroup of the Month.

“We get to encourage a healthy, carefree childhood (and adulthood!) amongst friendly, supportive families.”

“We enjoy beautiful spaces in the outdoors and meet new families that have moved to town. Our sessions are relaxed and the fact that we meet outside, go for a short walk in a group to a safe spot for morning tea and a play, means there is plenty of opportunity to talk to different people in an unintimidating and supportive environment.”

“We get lots of dads attending as well as mums, and I'm so pleased that dad's feel comfortable coming to our playgroup.”

Time has shown that nature has a way of making people feel comfortable; comfortable in their own skin and comfortable to speak freely to the wind. American Author Donald Miller said, “All the trees are losing their leaves and not one of them is worried.” Customary worries can lose potency in nature and diminish, falling slowly like leaves in the breeze. The day may bring many forms of change, and yet, there is rhythm and there is calm.

“There are many studies to prove that nature is good for our mental health, having a calming and uplifting effect on moods,” said Merryn.

“Even on rainy days when it seems easier to stay inside, once we are out with our rain gear on walking amongst the trees and stepping through the puddles it makes both myself and my children (and the others that come to Bright Wild Things) feel so much happier and calmer and energised.”

Merryn sees the developmental benefits extended to the children as they play.

“They develop fine motor skills from picking up seeds, gross motor skills from walking on uneven ground, jumping like a kangaroo or balancing on logs. They use their senses, smell the gum leaves, touch rough bark or smooth rocks, feel cold creek water on their feet, listen to birds or frogs, look at little bugs up close or tall trees up high. They learn new words, learn when to touch or not (earth worms or ants) and how to look after our environment (picking up rubbish). The list is endless!”

Merryn notes the children’s ability to assess risk and develop creativity, such as using a stick as a fishing rod, chainsaw, whipper snipper etc. She said that the children gain confidence in themselves as they jump off stumps or balance on logs.

“They increase their immune systems by playing in the dirt and they develop a sense of connection with the environment.” 

Claire Mackinlay is part of the Wild Things Playgroup in Kiewa. She said that it is fantastic to see how much it has grown.

“When Wild Things began, I had a very active two-year-old boy, four-year-old girl and a new-born baby. I wanted the older two to run wild but found it difficult to take them out bushwalking etc because I simply didn’t have enough pairs of hands and I didn’t really know where the appropriate places to go were. Wild Things allowed us to all get out there because other parents were always willing to help each other out and Jarrod always chose safe trails and places to hike, paddle, play etc. Every week I learnt fantastic new walks, swimming holes etc.”

Claire’s backyard extends to rivers, mountain bike trails and the ski fields, making for a very healthy lifestyle.

“I grew up in rural Victoria, we free-ranged it around town and in the paddocks. We were outside seeking adventures from morning until dark, it was a fun and happy existence.”

Claire’s husband grew up in the country too and a love of nature is something they hope to instil in their children.

“I hope that they wake up in the morning and the first thing they do is look out the window and contemplate how they are going to organise their day so they can get out there, I think Wild Things is the beginning of this.”

While the beginnings of Wild Things were but faint footprints on the land, there were some bigger footprints leaving marks for others to follow. Jarrod Paine is the founder of the BushPlay Project Guide, designed specifically for playgroup aged children and their families. Jarrod first pathed the way for this initiative when his children were very young.

Put simply, Jarrod said that Wild Things provides a further platform for families to spend time together and in a different setting.

“The outdoors by its very nature promotes openness in observation and reflection. With this it encourages families to discuss important parenting challenges while getting fingernails dirty and making rock towers with their children. The importance to ours and any community is having yet another avenue for families to feel comfortable spending time with other families in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The more settings a community has to provide the healthier the community.”

Jarrod also understands that Wild Things is important to future proof our community’s connection with nature and the great outdoors.

“Starting a positive relationship with nature, role modelled by our trusted mentors, engages children early and will hopefully lead to lifelong environmental stewardship and understanding of the interconnectedness of everything.”

Jarrod will have one more year leading Kiewa Wild Things while he has a pre-school age child. He said, “it will conclude a glorious time in my life where I have been privileged enough to lead so many children and their families into their beginning of a lifelong nature relationship.”

To ensure the continuing of the group in the community Jarrod has begun to mentor more leaders, and has authored Wild Things Leaders Guides and location guides for many of the locations they have visited.

Playgroup Development Adviser, Justine Jones, visited Bright Wild Things and was amazed by the 16 families who showed up. She basked in the winter sun watching on as the relaxed group chattered and the children jumped in the puddles.

“It’s natural for kids to love nature. A leaf with ants is a miniature world, a flower is an earring, a puddle a mirror.”

Justine could see how beneficial bush play was for all involved.

“It is simple, nurturing and open-ended play! It allows young minds to ponder, wonder and experience in a sensory way the world around them. Children make sense of their world by smelling, feeling, seeing and hearing and tasting - and then deciphering these messages to form meaning. You can’t do that on an iPad!”

It is different to an iPad, no doubt. As technological advancement sweeps through our homes and the education sector, bush play let’s these kids, just be kids. There is balance. Justine uses the word stable and happy to describe what it gives and what we gain.

“There is a different location each time, regardless of weather and the families can move at their own pace and explore their connection to each other and the peaceful surroundings. The playgroup leader is welcoming, relaxed and informative. The structure is minimal and everyone enjoyed themselves so much.”

For Justine, Jarrod’s BushPlay Guide was an invaluable resource for parents, who may be unsure about the dangers or hazards of going bush with their young children. The Guide is now freely available to all Playgroup Victoria members, but stretches beyond that. The aim is to encourage families to explore the great outdoors, to observe, to play and to be together.

Jarrod borrows a phrase from the Onceler in Dr Seuss’ 'The Lorax':

“I hope for Wild things Playgroups to keep biggering and biggering and biggering, but in a way the Lorax would be happy with. The more Wild Things groups we can create, the more children and families we can expose to the curiosity and awe inspiring place that is outdoors; and we know that this is important for developing connections and then caring for natural spaces and understanding our place in it.”

There is a shared understanding between Jarrod, Merryn and Claire. They understand that we share our lives with a bigger force that gives our lives meaning. Small bugs and subtle undergrowth all contribute to the natural cycle of life, of which we are not merely a bystander; we impact its survival, just as it impacts ours.

Article by Sinead Halliday

Login to our member portal on the Playgroup Victoria website to access the BushPlay Guide.

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