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Unstructured play at nature school builds kids' confidence

30 August 2021
Three children outdoors

Into Nature School founders Amy Lake and Hillary Paalvast dreamed of a school in the native bush where children could run free, be inspired to create, explore, and play.  What drove them was a desire to address the sensory issues they were seeing in primary and intermediate aged children. 

Located at Karamu in the Waikato, the 'one day each week' programme is for primary and intermediate aged children, and is all about maximising a child's social, emotional and developmental potential.  

“We liken Into Nature School to an ‘80s childhood on the farm,” says Amy Lake, Director and Educator at Into Nature School. “Back when we had all the freedom in the world to play all day.” 

“Our ethos is underpinned by the principles of empowerment, inclusion, relationships, learning to learn and ecological sustainability.” 

The school offers its programme as an opt-in basis to students, with a fee to attend. Hoping to increase accessibility to children who might benefit from the programme, Amy applied for Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa funding.  

“Receiving Tū Manawa funding has meant we can offer ten children either one term fees-free or two terms with half the fees covered.” 

A boy and a girl playing in a forest

Each day at school, the students take part in one or two set activities, such as pest trapping or building bird houses, leaving the rest of the day to be spent in unstructured, free play.  

“What the kids choose to do is really important mahi,” Amy explains. “And something we’ve noticed is that there is almost always an imaginative or competitive element to their play.”  

“Just taking a step back and watching, you can see kids coming up with such weird and wonderful things to do. They will make obstacle courses in the mud. They will have competitions to see how deep they can walk into a puddle before the water comes over the top of their gumboots. They will find ropes and jimmy them up in trees.” 

Through play, the educators are seeing the kids developing improved self management skills, building individual confidence, resilience, and physical movement skills. 

kids sawing through wood

We always knew the outcomes were going to be great, but what we weren’t prepared for was how quickly we would see them. We didn’t expect to see progress so quickly, it was exponential,” says Amy.  

“The curriculum includes strands such as exploration, imagination and independence that lay out the skills and attitudes we aim to foster in our students. We’re constantly blown away by how readily they latch onto them.” 

Sport Waikato CEO, Matthew Cooper, says the value of unstructured play has been lost over the years, and it was great to see Into Nature School having such a big impact.   

“It just make so much sense, and the benefits are not only in physical activity – it’s about well-being, resilience, unstructured play and confidence. The results the school achieves through doing things differently are simply outstanding.” 

“One of the games the children like to play is ‘capture the flag’, where kids go up and down our ‘Makers Mountain’, through bush, over bumpy roots, and swinging on vines,” says Amy. 

“We see quite a few children with dyspraxia. Some of these children struggle to walk in a straight line. Imagine how daunting it is when they first meet all the kahikatea roots in their gumboots. The first few times they need to have their hands held. There may be a lot of tripping and stumbling. But by the end of the term, these kids, who could barely walk on their own when they first started, join in happily with capture the flag, and with great success.” 

“Play is important because it’s fun. It’s the best way to learn new things. When you’re playing and having fun, you enjoy learning more.” 

Two kids playing in mud


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