Reflections on the Natural Phenomena conference

Recently my work has had a strong focus on the built environment: how the decisions and actions of planners, highway engineers, designers and others shape children’s lives. Which has meant that the other side of my work – connecting with educators, playworkers and others who work directly with children – has taken a back seat.

But last weekend at the Natural Phenomena conference in Whangarei, New Zealand, the educators were to the fore. And it reminded me that there’s nothing quite like hanging out with people who are deeply committed to children, and deeply engaged in the sometimes messy, sometimes challenging, sometimes joyous art and practice of supporting children’s learning and play. So at the risk of seeming self-indulgent, I’d like to share some of the feelings and experiences of that remarkable time and place.

The Wild Woods: venue for the Natural Phenomena conference

I took part in a powhiri (a Maori greeting ceremony). I threw alt-atl spears – and juggling balls and mobile phones. I met educators from around the corner, and from around the other side of the world. I heard stories of princesses, giants, lions, deer, eagles, ants and rocks (thank you Tanya Batt). I sat and stood around the central fire, sharing stories of making fire and creating art.

I learnt a bit of Maori language, and Maori culture and forms of life (thank you various people, including Dr Ihirangi Heke) – and wanted to learn more. (I am no expert, but this trip reinforces my view that new Zealanders of all backgrounds are making more progress than many other countries in building a fair, respectful settlement between indigenous people and incomers – though I am sure there is a long way to go.)

I felt the presence of the trees and the birds and the earth and the sun – and the rain (a lot of rain).

I appreciated the presence of the children who shared the space: whose world at times danced to its own beat and at times chimed with the world of the grown-ups.

I helped build a hangi – (thank you outdoor educator Omine Ivatt and Mark Jones of Auckland University of Technology) and feasted on the results.

The hangi pyre

The hangi pyre

Hangi: unearthing the food

Hangi: unearthing the food

Hangi: the results

Hangi: the results

I left feeling intellectually revived, spiritually restored and emotionally connected with that place, with this planet, and with a group of people who care deeply about both.

My offer to the conference was the gift of a balanced approach to risk, in the form of risk benefit assessment (RBA). It was well received. (In preparing this gift, I discovered that the 2017 update of Te Whāriki – New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum – has strengthened its content on risk, saying that children should “have the ability to take risks” and that teachers should “appreciate the importance of children exploring and testing their physical abilities by engaging in adult-supported risk-taking play.”)

To everyone who made these few days in the Wild Woods near Whangarei so moving and memorable: thank you. A special thank you to Dino Aplin and the rest of the committee for inviting me.

An extra special thank you to delegate Sipa for her elegantly lyrical winning entry to my spur-of-the-moment competition to come up with a mnemonic for the six stages of RBA.

Benefits, Risks, Local factors, Comparisons, Decision, Actions, Brown Rooms Look Cool During AutumnTo any educators out there looking for deep inspiration in a deeply immersive, nurturing space: if you ever get the chance to come to Nat Phen, don’t even hesitate. Just do it.

If you are passing through the region, I know that the Open Spaces pre-school would welcome you. It looks well worth a visit.

Open Spaces pre-school outdoor space (partial)

Open Spaces pre-school outdoor space (partial)

And if you can’t wait a year (or two) till the next one, feel free to join me this Saturday (Nov 25 2017) at 2 pm in Auckland for Rewild the Child 2. I can’t promise you food cooked on hot rocks buried in the ground. But I can promise you a Pommy independent scholar (thank you, Cherry Daly: Nat Phen’s Earth Mother) sharing some thoughts on children’s play, their everyday freedoms, and their outdoor learning.

 

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