Skills Active trainee growing budding nature explorers through a bush curriculum

May 24, 2021

Nature empowers children to learn with all their senses, says early childhood teacher Jen Turconi, who has almost finished her outdoor education qualification through Skills Active.

Jen has been involved in early childhood education (ECE) for over 20 years, and is the head teacher at the Te Puna centre which is part of the Otago University Childcare Association. She also coordinates the centre’s ‘bush curriculum’.

Jen loves working with young children because they are open to new ideas and “everything is a wonder to them” – especially in the outdoors. She herself has had a strong connection to the outdoors from her earliest years.

“I also have a passion for sustainability, which I think starts very early on, and begins with children developing their own relationship with nature,” Jen says.

“There are many benefits to having an early childhood curriculum based in the outdoors. It is an incredibly rich space for play and learning, and fosters creativity and curiosity about the world.

“It can challenge you, and help you develop resilience and leadership,” she adds.

“It is also a space where children learn through all their senses, and that’s a really important thing these days with the uptake of digital platforms. Being outdoors is a way for children and young people to be in their bodies, and have some time off devices.”

Jen notes that children’s lives are more ‘scheduled’ now than they used to be, and outdoor education is a good way to encourage them – and their families – to get out and have unstructured time in nature.

“We do an orientation for parents before we start each term intake, and we show them all the things we do and where we go. Some parents will say, ‘Oh wow, I haven’t been to this place before.’

“It just kind of opens them up to new experiences and shows them they can connect with their local environment and bring their children to these places to play.”

Since Te Puna’s bush curriculum started eight years ago, it has grown and flourished. Jen enrolled in the New Zealand Certificate in Outdoor Leadership (Education Outside the Classroom) (Level 4) as a way to level up her outdoor education practice, grow her confidence and fill in some gaps.

“I wanted to gain outdoor education skills that would sit alongside my early childhood qualifications, and complement what we were doing. And I wanted to have confidence that the health and safety side of things was covered,” she says.

“It was a bit of a challenge to start with. Coming from an ECE background, rather than outdoor education, I was being introduced to quite a lot of new things.

“So there was quite a bit of back and forth with my assessor and learning support advisor, and they helped me find the resources I needed to upskill.”

As part of her assessments, Jen created new processes to sit alongside Te Puna’s outdoor education activities.

“We were already doing the right things, but it wasn’t well-documented, and the programme supported me to create those systems. That was quite a bit of work, but really worthwhile.”

Jen plans to encourage her fellow early childhood educators to take up the Skills Active programme.

“I think one of the major barriers for ECE teachers in getting children out of their centres and outdoors, is having all the paperwork in place and feeling confident that they’ve assessed and managed all the risks.

“This programme will give teachers that confidence to remove the barriers and allow children to experience all the amazing things a nature curriculum can offer.”