The chances are that, for most Australian schoolchildren, outdoor experiences like these are few and far between.
Research shows that around 85 per cent of Aussie kids spend less than two hours of play outside – more than a third less than previous generations – and opportunities to interact with the natural world are becoming increasingly limited.
Risk-averse parenting and the ever-present and addictive glow of screens are getting in the way of students and the natural world; and the disconnect between the two is a real problem with real consequences, according to author Richard Louv.
Writing in his breakout book, The Last Child in the Wood, Louv says that for many children nature has become “more abstraction than reality”.
“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rainforest – but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move,” he writes.
Missing out on these experiences is not just a question of losing something intrinsically valuable; a lack of ‘vitamin N’ for nature can have long-term consequences for childhood development, including physical and emotional health, Louv says.
Not to mention the consequences for our environment.
Research shows that children who have regular and authentic experiences with nature are more likely to care about the world around them; and that’s something humanity can certainly learn to do a little better in the future.
But while many of our kids are suffering from “nature-deficit disorder”, as Louv calls it, students at one school in South Australia have more nature than they know what to do with – 40 acres of it, in fact.
Students at Cambrai Primary School are the proud custodians of Meldanda, a former farming estate located alongside the Marne River near the Mount Lofty Ranges in South Australia.
The property was bequeathed to Cambrai in 1991 by local man Les Weiss and has since become a treasured addition to the school and the wider community itself.
A once “barren farmscape”, it now boasts swathes of native bushland, resident wombats, kangaroos, birdlife and natural waterholes.
Michelle Holloway, principal of Cambrai Primary, says Meldanda offers students a truly unique opportunity to commune with their natural environment.
“I was involved in a school where we developed a nature play [program] but this is like nature play on steroids, because it’s not just play, it is a real learning opportunity out there that I think other schools would die for...” she says.
Cambrai students hold regular STEM classes on the property and each week the entire school descends on the site for a day of “integrated learning”.
“...we are out there every Friday (weather permitting) just taking advantage of the environment,” Holloway says.
The principal says she has seen first-hand the positive effects that come with bringing children closer to nature.
“[It’s] the social/emotional benefits [and] the resilience being out there, of being able to self-direct,” she says.
“They’re using a lot of common sense, making decisions about their safety – I will do this or I won’t do this – and I think developing those sorts of resilience and self-control type aspects can’t be underestimated.
“But [it’s] their ability to direct their own learning, as well; it’s very much inquiry-based learning at Meldanda, where they will be given a question – ‘what will happen if...?’ and they go out there and discover.”
Students are also encouraged to take their responsibilities as custodians very seriously, continuing to regenerate the property with native plant life and maintaining the installations.
“We are still absolutely intent on every year contributing something that is going to be an ongoing asset to Meldanda and that the kids can relate to and say ‘I built this’ or ‘I contributed this to Meldanda’,” Holloway says.
That’s something parents of current students and former custodians are proud to recall during school events.
“They can tell you exactly what they built and what they contributed to the property”, the principal says.
But Cambrai students are determined not to be the last children in the bush; they want others to experience what they get to do on a regular basis.
“... we’re really keen to get the message out to other schools to come [to Meldanda] because it’s a great place to have camps and things like that.”