Originally published in Te Whakatika (EONZ)

‘Nature is the best medicine’. It’s an oldie but a goodie and seems to have stood the test of time. I would even say it’s coming back into fashion. But what does nature have to do with education? Where does it fit in?


Nature education is a relatively new concept compared to outdoor education. Outdoor education came about in the 1940’s and can be defined as experiential learning or organised learning that takes place in the outdoors [1].

Whereas nature education is so new it doesn’t really have an official definition so I will do my best to explain from my perspective what it is, how it is different and why a term like this could be useful for New Zealand.

A big part of nature education is about connecting children with nature through spending regular time in nature. This mainly happens in an unstructured way and through play, curiosity and exploration. It can also happen with a mix of play and activities in nature.

It has possibly come about for our youngest tamariki as that step before outdoor education but is beneficial all the way through to adulthood…yes adults like to play too!

Place-responsive education is part of the ethos too. When children spend regular time in their local environment, they get to know it deeply through seasonal observations, having special places, and giving names to local animals or areas of their local environment.

Through their place, they connect with nature, start to care for nature and love nature which leads to becoming kaitiakitanga of their place.


The other major part of nature education is the developmental benefits for both children and adults.

Play, particularly free, unstructured and outdoors is essential for healthy brain and socio-emotional development and in the early years of life is far more important than direct instruction [2,3].

Some of these types of play also provide opportunities for children to engage in age-appropriate risky play. Risky play helps children to learn to manage their own safety and move around comfortably [4].

Being outside in adverse conditions can teach a child a lot about having tolerance toward challenging situations, how to manage themselves and understand their own capabilities.

The natural environment is fundamentally important to both our physical and psychological well-being, so actions that promote and protect our natural environment help to increase our ability to flourish in life.

In turn, people and communities that are flourishing, i.e. have high levels of well-being, tend to be environmentally responsible in their behaviour and can, therefore, contribute to environmental sustainability [5].

In the early years, free unstructured play in nature is a big focus of nature education. It means children get to choose what they play and how they play without adults leading the play. This could be looking for bugs, making huts, climbing a tree, making mud pies, collecting taonga or rolling down a hill.

All these different experiences not only help our tamariki to build a relationship with nature, but they also help to connect neural pathways in their brains, developing resilience, building emotional regulation and strengthening social skills.

Observation becomes a key role for educators at this stage, but we also want to acknowledge there is always a continuum. Some children don’t know how to play so we may be required to scaffold them into their free play.

For older children, the role of the teachers is much the same but there can be opportunities to extend their learning. This is where putting on a facilitator’s hat comes in. Asking the right questions, making observations on what is happening, and providing support to a group trying to make a decision, but not doing it for them.

It can also be teaching through nature, with nature and for nature. This could be doing a maths measuring lesson outside or a science water quality test for your local awa. Naturally some play will occur during these sessions.


Another great thing about play is it can lead to deeper understandings about how things work in a real-world way and can link back to your curriculum areas.

For example, a teacher was telling me about a ditch that flowed through the bush area they go and play in for one day a week (nature school day). It had been raining and the children were floating sticks down the creek.

They then noticed there was rubbish floating down the creek too. There was a discussion about how it got there, and the teacher asked them if they would like to find out.

They went on an exploration up the creek to find the starting point and they realised that it was the main road and all the rubbish was in the gutter and then floating down into the creek. There were then discussions on where the rubbish was going to end up and what they could do about it. So, there is potential for projects to come out of their play in the school years that link directly to the curriculum.

They were THINKING about where the rubbish came from and went, PARTICIPATING AND CONTRIBUTING their ideas during the discussion, MANAGING THEMSELVES to stay safe and stick together when they were walking, USING LANGUAGE to express their feelings, sharing ideas and RELATING TO OTHERS and UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACTS of what happens if we just throw our rubbish on the ground rather than putting it in a bin.

These are all links to key competencies in the New Zealand curriculum. Nature education can be woven into everyday teaching or become a mix of nature education and EOTC (Education Outside The Classroom).

Many schools are starting or have already started, on the journey of play-based learning (PBL) and there are two points I want to raise as I still feel PBL seems to be focused on the indoors:

  • play-based learning needs to be outdoors more and preferably time in natural environments. Playing outdoors gives different outcomes compared to playing indoors. There are some things that just can’t be replicated inside. They also can’t bounce off the walls if there are none!
  • Play shouldn’t stop straight after new entrants, in fact, it shouldn’t stop at high school either. Some of my best memories of school camps were the evening free play time where we got to climb trees, play spotlight and make huts. This play needs to be happening for every age and stage in school.

Access to play improves classroom behaviour and academic performance (Pellegrini and Smith, 1998) and enhances children’s readiness to learn, their learning behaviours and their ability to problem solve [6].

Currently, we are seeing children who live 1km from the beach having never visited it. In Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, the term “nature-deficit disorder” was coined to describe the phenomenon of children’s disconnection from the natural world. [7]

Things are different for this generation of children. Since the introduction of modern technology and especially smartphones, we have seen a dramatic decrease in outdoor play. It’s not only technology that has had an impact. We also need to consider urbanisation, parents’ fears, media and the costs of living requiring the home-based parent to find work.

If children aren’t spending regular time outdoors in nature, they aren’t connecting with nature which means they aren’t caring for nature. The other side is we see children with less resilience, higher anxiety, obesity, poor social skills, and other mental health problems like we have never seen before.

Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading [7].

For children, greenspaces are an important environmental influence on emotional wellbeing [8].


Some people will be asking why do we need another term? Great question! Here is some background to why this term has come about in New Zealand.

In early childhood centres over the last 5-10 years a growing number of centres have started running 1-2 day per week nature play sessions, sometimes called Bush Kindy, Forest Kindergarten or Nature Discovery programmes.

Internationally, Forest schools, as they are also known, have grown in popularity too and teachers around the country have been looking into this model for their own schools.

A couple of years ago a network for nature educators was set up in New Zealand via Facebook and discussions were had around what Forest Schools would look like in New Zealand.

It was recognised that in New Zealand we didn’t just run programmes in the forest. Bush was probably the term we aligned with more, but it wasn’t just bush that was used. Groups were going to beaches, wetlands, parks, reserves and farms. So, the name forest schools didn’t seem to fit for many.

Nature education became a term that educators started to use naturally as it seemed to encompass all those types of spaces but can also be linked to nature connection and the learning, growth and development that happens in nature.

Alongside these discussions, we also observed a number of international Forest School Training organisations coming to New Zealand to run their courses and provide qualifications for people to become Forest School Leaders.

These providers have been promoting and providing their courses in New Zealand without consideration of our cultural narrative, our environmental differences, our curriculums and mataranga Māori. While their courses work well in their country of origin and should be respected for the wonderful work they had been doing, they didn’t fit the same here as our needs weren’t being met.

The term nature education became two-fold. It recognised the importance of connecting children to nature and the many other associated benefits of regular time in nature. But it is also a term that can be used for New Zealand’s version of Forest Schools, unique to us, created by us and taking inspiration from overseas.

Nature education shouldn’t be too prescriptive as there is never one way of doing things. Nature education could fit into schools in different ways than I talk about above and what it comes down to is considering your community, your iwi, your whānau, your school, your environment and your tamariki.

It will look different wherever you go in New Zealand and that would be beautiful to see.

Keeping the core concept of connecting children to te taiao (the environment) is key and everything else will happen organically.

There is work still to be done for nature education in New Zealand. It’s a work in progress. Please watch this space as we develop nature education as kiwis in Aotearoa, for kiwis in Aotearoa.



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[1] https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2305/Outdoor-Environmental-Education.html

[2] Frost, J. L. (1998). Neuroscience, play, and child development. Paper presented at the IPA/USA Triennial National Conference, Longmont, CO. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED427845.pdf

[3] Szalavitz, M., & Perry, B. D. (2010). Born for love. New York: HarperCollins.

[4] Knight, S (2009). Forest schools and outdoor learning in the early years. London, SAGE publications.

[5] Auckland Mental Health Foundation (2011). The relationship between sustainable environmental practices and positive mental health.  https://www.mhaw.nz/assets/NZ-lit-PDFs/The-relationship-between-sustainable-environmental-practices-and-positive-wellbeing-MHF-2011.pdf

[6] Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds, Paediatrics.

[7] Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, N.C: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

[8] Ward, J. S., Duncan, J. S., et al. 2016, Health & Place; The impact of children’s exposure to greenspace on physical activity, cognitive development, emotional wellbeing, and ability to appraise risk https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S135382921630048X


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