Every Tuesday afternoon, an Adventist school in northern New South Wales, Australia, takes students to play in the bush. From 12:30 p.m. onwards, the students at Manning Adventist School in Tinonee go outside and enjoy a few hours of unstructured play out in nature. Activities include weaving, mud play, bushwalking, slacklining, studying insects, and building dens. Head teacher Dianne Hillsdon is the leader of the Bush School initiative.
“It’s been very successful in building confidence and creating resilience,” Hillsdon said of the children at Manning. “They’ve attempted things they’ve never done before, like climbing trees and playing in the mud — all those things that children don’t do nearly as often these days or not at all. I love that about it.”
Hillsdon added that in a time when children seem to be more anxious and stressed than ever before, “it gives time for us as teachers to connect, build relationships, and understand children’s behavior.”
“It gives children the chance to be creative, use their imaginations, and become more environmentally conscious.”
Hillsdon first heard about unstructured outdoor play during a previous role as Adventist Church education director in Western Australia. It captured her interest, and she later enrolled in training to become an accredited Level 3 Forest School Leader. This involved studying for more than 12 months and traveling to the United Kingdom twice to complete the course. The qualification allows for Bush Schools to happen with any age group right up to adults. She is the only trained person in Adventist schools across Australia.
“Bush School aligns beautifully with our ethos of Adventist education,” Hillsdon said. “The initiative began in Scandinavia during the 1950s, where it is known as Forest Schools. Forest Schools migrated to the United Kingdom during the early 1990s, where it now forms a part of almost every pre-school across the country. Australia is about 20 years behind the United Kingdom. It is our choice to call this program Bush School because of our Australian context.”
Bush School currently runs one afternoon a week, but Hillsdon would like to increase it to lunchtimes every day. Children have been asking for more, she said.
“I’ve worked in Adventist schools for 30 years, but this is the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “I’d love to gain a Level 4 accreditation, train other teachers, and help implement this program in all of our New South Wales Adventist schools.” The program aligns with curriculum outcomes and can replace other not-so-exciting subjects.
“There is a ‘buzz’ around the local town. People are getting to hear about what we are doing at Manning,” Hillsdon said. “We have been on the television, radio, and newspapers in the last month. [Recently] we had the local pre-school come to visit, which boosted our numbers by more than 20 students.”