Jennifer McCormack pic

Nature Play, Numala Kinder, and Ninjas

The Nerang River on the Gold Coast is a beautiful natural feature, particularly as it winds its way towards the foothills of the Gold Coast hinterland. The attraction of the river and surrounding areas is undeniable, and it is where we find Jennifer McCormack, our next utterly badass educator.

Jennifer is the director of Numala Kinder, a relatively young service started a year and a half ago. Jennifer, however, has over 20 years in early childhood education, and found her own journey to heading up her own Family Day Care (FDC) service a winding and unexpected one.

“I’d worked in child care centres and schools for many years, and had taken a lengthy break to have my three children,” she said.

“In looking to get back to work while my youngest was still at home, I had initially thought of FDC with a focus on the creative arts. However, I couldn’t ignore the draw of the Nerang River so close to home, as well as the nearby field and parks on either side of the river. I realised I wanted to incorporate these natural features into my FDC service.

“Finding someone to support this vision was initially difficult, until I found Inspired Family Day Care. Inspired FDC have partnered, guided, and mentored me to be able to deliver education through nature play, as I intended.”

Jennifer’s commitment to nature play is thorough, offering a variety of nature play programs through her service. However, her advocacy for a natural childhood is not always applauded.

“I have always blogged, and so started one for Numala Kinder. This exposure brought me attention, both positive and negative. It became clear that there was a lot of confusion and fear associated with nature play.

“The biggest complaint I receive is the perception that I put the children at risk. This is simply not true,” she said.

“The children play in bare feet, play in puddles and the river, climb trees, ride bikes, dig holes, roll down hills, slip down muddy slopes, and explore natural places.

“I am never putting children at risk. We explore, discuss, and understand risks. My job also involves safeguarding against hazards, which are risks the children can’t see. I am much more cautious when children are still 2 or 3 years old and cannot regulate these concepts yet.

“For example, hazards could include knowing when the tide is coming in, or when recent rains have made previously shallow water a lot deeper. I will always be aware of these hazards.

“The other common criticism I receive that I have not thought about what could go wrong. This is so far from the truth!

“I have impressive piles of paperwork, risk assessments, and parent permission forms that I have to go through before we undertake our activities. I never take the children anywhere I haven’t visited previously and become familiar with. I’m not trying to be Bear Grylls! It’s not about creating wild children and wild play. Our activities are thoughtfully selected to allow the children to explore engagement with their natural environment and have safe play.

“If the children and I want to be spontaneous, we can be. The children may ask to go to the beach, and I’ll say, sure! Let us plan a way to make that happen, and it will always be somewhere I’ve become acquainted with first.

“I am so grateful to Inspired FDC. Though all the learning and criticisms from people, they have supported me, and kept a close eye on me, as they do with all their educators. They make sure I’ve got all my emergency contacts and procedures up to date, and am complying with all necessary paperwork.”

Nature play is still an emerging child care option in Australia, and Jennifer finds a lot of her support and learnings through online groups.

“I am connected to a wonderful circle of educators online, we educate and support each other, which is especially necessary due to nature play being an alternative form of education in Australia,” she said.

“Nature play is still having its value questioned. However, I believe that there is not a single lesson that cannot be taught outside, up until high school. You just need to be creative. This requirement can be a block for many people, but it does not require you to be very arty, you just need to ask yourself if there is another way we can explore something.

“I love stories and storytelling, and encourage the children to use stories to express how they are feeling, relate it to nature play, and explore things in their own time. Recently the children and I got to storytelling and playing around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This interest developed into playful exploration of the natural environment when we saw turtles in the river one day. I suggested that the turtles were sneaky like ninjas, and the children agreed. From this we painted together about ninja turtles, created them in play dough, and even wrote a story about the turtles and Eastern Water Dragons that are also seen around the river. This story and associated games have carried through all term, and we now even have turtle and water dragon puppets. It has burst beyond its initial commercial confines and the children are now doing their own exploration, storytelling and ninja play.”

Jennifer has compiled and self-published a collection of collaborative nature stories, such as this one, in a book called ‘Come Play With Me’. It is intended as a support for outdoor storytelling and source of stories to encourage children and educators to embrace nature play. Information on how to order a copy will soon be on Jennifer’s website.

Jennifer is seeing first-hand the benefits to children, parents, and communities when nature plays a significant role in education.

“I see the effects of nature play on the well-being of children. Children are happy when they can move freely, show independence and be an active member of their community,” she said.

“I have wonderful open relationships with our communities and parents. For example, we light matches for candles for our morning tea blessing and also when we light a cooking fire. Explaining that there is always a purpose and that you should always have an adult present, I taught the children how to light the matches. Working with our parents, we learned the why and how of lighting matches, and the risks involved. I made sure the children knew to never light matches on their own, and we were completely honest with parents about the process. We found that parents were then sharing their own stories with us, so our honesty and openness was encouraging the same from our community.

Jennifer is taking every opportunity to learn and grow as an education professional, and is finding the process a humbling one.

“My biggest learning so far has been to stop being an expert and trying to have control over the children’s decisions and how they interact with each other. I have done FDC before, and I am finding that doing education through nature play is resulting in minimal behaviour issues with the children. There are minor scraps, but that’s it. While I am always watchful, I see myself as a support person in the service. I see how much the children grow in confidence when they’re able to determine how they are going to make decisions.

“I’m looking forward to the learnings at the Educator Unchained event, it’s shaping up to be a fantastic event.”

Educator Unchained was on Wednesday 4 May, 2016, Brisbane. A review of the day is coming soon!

If you are interested in reading Jennifer’s blog, you can find it here.