Nature Schools: A New Way of Teaching Music to Young Children

Image source: Natural Musicians, UK
Graham Strahle
| December 19, 2016

There may be a better way for teaching music to young children than inside the four walls of a classroom, and that is outdoors. A movement gaining ground in the UK, North America and now Australia called Nature Pedagogy is taking the early learning curriculum including music into gardens, nature parks, forests and other wild places.

Proponents of the movement say it eradicates the mono-dimensionality of school classrooms, avoids the stranglehold of technology as props to teaching, and helps reverse the increasing sedentariness of young people’s lives. Being within and part of nature affords better ways of learning, they argue, because children are able to connect more meaningfully with their surroundings, their senses are more fully engaged, and not least of all nature’s canvas is itself a wonderful platform for learning.

It might sound like the dreamy ideals of tree-hugging hippies, but that stereotype is far from the truth. Historically, William Wordsworth and John Ruskin both deplored education ‘by the book’ and advocated a back-to-nature approach to teaching children. For more than a century, Scandinavian countries have promoted a philosophy that they term frulitsliv (Norwegian for ‘open air life’), whereby outdoor living makes for healthier individuals and a healthier society in general. Today, there are several hundred live-in frulitsliv schools in Scandinavia, mainly for school-leavers.

Educational institutions called ‘Forest schools’ have started springing up in Australia. Conceived on outdoor modes of learning based on play and exploration, these first appeared in Wisconsin in the 1920s, and in Sweden and Denmark in the 1950s. Britain enthusiastically embraced the idea of Forest schools in the 1990s and now boasts some 140 such schools for children aged three to five. Many include music as a subject, with activities such as singing, composing songs and making instruments using natural materials.

A glimpse of what these classes are like comes from one teacher, Chris Holland of Musical Woods Forest School in Devon, England. He says: “The music is played with a combination of body percussion, beatboxing, vocals and found natural instruments like sticks and bushes. It is a way of using the outdoor classroom and meeting music curriculum elements like pulse, describing sounds, soundscapes, rhythmic patterns, working alone, composition, working as a duet, [and] working as an ensemble.”

Forest schools and outdoor music programs are still in their infancy in this country, but Australia already has six Nature Kindergartens and 10 nature school specialist teachers spread across all six states – this according to the latest count of the International Association of Nature Pedagogy. Inspired by UK and European models, they have been spearheaded by resolute individuals such as Doug Fargher, founder of the ‘Bush Kinder’ program at Westgarth Kindergarten in Melbourne, and committed environmentalists and educators such as Imogen Brennan who helped establish the Nature School two years ago in Port Macquarie, NSW. In its peaceful environs pre-schoolers roam free, playing music and engaging in bushcrafts under the tutelage of teachers and volunteers.

“This is nature school, where students spend almost 100 per cent of their day in the wild. Come rain, hail or intense summer heat,” explains Brennan.

Nature pedagogy is currently being taught in music subjects for the Bachelor of Education degree course at Federation University in Ballarat, and with growing awareness of the benefits of Forest schools its future looks promising.

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