For a bunch of preschoolers in suburban Melbourne, Wednesdays are their favourite day. And if it's raining when they wake up, even better! Wednesday is Bush Kinder day, when 26 children and three educators head into the bush with no cover, play equipment or organised games.
For three hours the kids muck around with sticks, dirt, mud and rocks and climb trees no matter what the weather; rain or shine, mist, drizzle or cold, they're outside.
Doug Fargher, director of Westgarth Kindergarten and instigator of Bush Kinder, says they've only cancelled once in three years of running Bush Kinder. "We love it, we're constantly watching one of the weather apps and if there is likely to be rain, everyone gets a bit excited," he says.
"The children slip on their wet weather gear and the lovely thing is, they just enjoy the rain. It's fantastic." Needless to say when the mums and dads come to collect them, the preschoolers are muddy, wet and mucky, but very happy.
Doug's innovative Bush Kinder was inspired by the forest schools in Europe where, for more than 50 years, children as young as three have spent their preschool years being outdoors in all seasons.
Doug thought that if educators can do that in northern Europe, where the weather is far less kind than in Australia, he could give it a go in Melbourne. His idea is part of a wider push to get children back outdoors and in touch with the natural world for the host of benefits it brings.
Research is revealing kids do better when they spend more time outside, for example developing greater physical and social skills, reducing the chance of being overweight and having better learning experiences and more creative play. Yet experts are worried children have moved from playing primarily outdoors to being inside, with screen time replacing outside activities and experiences.
A survey by Planet Ark found kids today spend far less time climbing trees, exploring reserves and playing in the street than their parents did when they were young. Only one in five kids now climbs trees, compared with three quarters of the parents surveyed. Also, three quarters of parents played outside every day compared to only one third of their kids today.
Outdoor play has so many benefits for kids.
A sense of wonder
Conservation groups and early childhood experts are working to reverse this trend with initiatives such as Bush Kinder and bush schools, as well as other outdoor events that encourage ways for children to connect with the natural world.
Recently, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) hosted a series of talks by world renowned conservationist Richard Louv to promote the idea of helping children reconnect with nature. Richard was the first to coin the term 'nature deficit disorder' in his 2005 book, The Last Child In The Woods, to describe the impact an increasing lack of connection with nature has on children.
In his book, Richard argues that exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development, and cutting back on outdoor pursuits has links to rises in childhood ADHD, depression and obesity. Being outside and among the natural world also reduces stress, strengthens a child's physical senses and creates a sense of wonder and awe in childhood.
"That's the biggest thing, particularly for very young children, and it cannot be reproduced in front of a computer," Richard says.
"So, if our kids are spending more and more time looking at screens at younger and younger ages, they are spending a lot of energy blocking out the full use of their senses."
Parents can lead by example and share their child's sense of wonderment at the natural world. They can also rethink their fears about the risks of playing outside for children.
For example, Richard urges parents to compare the risk of a broken arm gained while climbing a tree to obesity, which is a lifelong health problem, or carpal tunnel syndrome, a computer overuse condition that paediatricians are seeing in "epidemic proportions".
"That sense of wonder and awe when you are among the trees in an environment not made by people – I don't think anybody wants to be the last generation to experience that," he says.
For Doug Fargher, his three-year bush experiment has proved to be an amazing success – for the staff, kids, parents and the wider community. He's given talks around the country, and has now seen other organisations set up Bush Kinder preschools and bush playgroups.
Apart from learning about nature, kids learn to take appropriate risks, improve their motor skills and even their outlook. Staff found that some of the more reserved, quieter children discover a louder voice and take on bigger challenges, while louder, wilder children become more settled and calmer in a bush setting.
But Doug says he likes the model they've created, which is a mix of indoor and outdoor preschool, because there's still plenty that can be learnt in a structured environments. The kids have two days at the preschool then, on the third day, are dropped off at the bush setting and collected three hours later.
In setting up the Bush Kinder, Doug says he involved academics and researchers because he wanted to create a model that could be used not just by his preschool, but by others all over the country. "Kids naturally want to learn and explore," he says.
"Those natural tools create open-ended imaginative play that we could never do with a man-made or built piece of equipment or art supply. We thought if we did it properly, then we'd have a model that other services could take on that, potentially, benefits all children."
Best outdoor activities with kids
Justin Walker, editor of Australian Geographic Outdoor has been hiking, climbing, paddling and cycling for more than 30 years, but still rates his biggest adventure as being the parent of a very active toddler. He shares his ideas for enjoying the great outdoors with your little one.
Having a baby or toddler doesn't mean an end to bushwalking. Load your child (and supplies) into a child-carrier/backpack. The up-high view of their surrounds will keep toddlers occupied for hours as you point out animals and interesting plants along the way.
Nothing beats camping as an introduction to the great outdoors. You might not get much sleep those first few nights, but seeing your kids' excited faces when you shine the torch on that bandicoot scratching around the tent will be a moment to remember!
Every adult remembers the fun they had riding a bicycle outdoors as a child, so relive those memories with your kids. Fit your bike with a child seat or child trailer, buy well-fitting bike helmets for you and your child, then try a few practice rides around the neighbourhood before exploring cycleways further afield.
Some toddlers prefer to explore on their own two legs. This just means distances covered will be smaller; a short 1km walk to a park will be transformed into a two-hour adventure as they stop and investigate plants, animals or people they find interesting along the way – and ask many, many questions!
The more time toddlers are able to spend outdoors, the more they will want to know about it. Plan an 'explorer's day'. This could be an outdoor treasure hunt, in which your toddler has to find a flower, spot a bird, look for fish in a river or count how many times waves flow up the beach.
WATCH: Toddler's haka wins hearts. Continues after video …
Five more reasons to head outside
- A US study concluded that children who have plenty of nature near their home have reduced levels of stress.
- In the UK, research by Britain's Forestry Commission discovered kids from forest schools had better physical and motor skills, language and communication, concentration and social interaction, as well as knowledge and understanding of the environment.
- Nature-based activities have been shown to improve the symptoms of ADHD.
- Children playing in areas with trees and vegetation show more creative social play than those in built-up environments.
- A Norwegian study found that children who played in woods near their school performed better in terms of coordination than those who played in a playground.