During my time at UNCW, I signed up for a week-long excursion to Finland because I was interested in why Finland is one of the top countries in the world for education. I wanted to learn about what they do differently than here in America. This trip fueled my growing interest in non-traditional education and forest schools.
I learned so much about their education system and how it differs from the U.S., but the one difference that stuck out to me the most was how much emphasis Finland places on play and the outdoors. The first school we visited was a Forest School. I remember the teacher telling us that when there is a lot of snow, she goes skiing on the hill near the school with her students as young as 4 years old! No weather is bad weather. They bundle up and go out in the cold (Finland sure does get cold!) and walk to a nearby woods, make fire, learn about edible plants, and spend the whole day out there climbing trees and cooking with plants. In this photo, they are all running together to the forest. It was refreshing to see a teacher having so much fun running and playing with the kids, and I thought, this is how education should be!
The second school we visited was a Finnish public school. This school was located a kilometer from the Baltic Sea. During recess, the children were allowed to roam free in the vast woods beyond their playground, with the Baltic Sea as the boundary. I will never forget when the teachers rang the bell notifying children it was time to come back inside, and a flock of children, dozens upon dozens, came running out of the trees.
Above: Finland forest near the Baltic Sea (a Finnish public school's playground!)
After this trip, I decided to study abroad for a semester in New Zealand, and I wanted to learn about how New Zealand views education too.
While I was planning my course schedule for my time in New Zealand, I signed up for an education class called "Hauora and Te Whāriki". So I looked up what that meant, and I read that Hauora is a Māori (indigenous people of New Zealand) philosophy of health and well-being unique to New Zealand, and Te Whāriki is their early childhood curriculum! This class would teach me about how New Zealand integrates Māori culture into their education curriculum, and I was so excited.
As I expected, I LOVED this class. The class was held in a part of Auckland, New Zealand, away from the main city campus, where I walked among beautiful large trees, jasmine flowers, and down pathways lined with traditional Māori-styled buildings to get to class.
I learned that Te Whāriki encompasses 4 broad principles: empowerment, holistic development, family and community, and relationships. New Zealand really values teaching the WHOLE child. This includes exploration and a connection with nature: Mana Aotūroa. The goal for this aspect of the curriculum is to help children learn that the physical world is exciting and challenging, and for children to experience an environment where their play is valued as meaningful learning. The Māori believe that it is vital for children's health to be connected to the natural world. Children should be outside investigating the natural world, questioning, and building a strong connection with the outdoors. When this happens, children build a respect for all life, which also motivates respectful relationships with others.
I was in awe for how much New Zealand values outdoor play and exploration for young children, which is something that is increasingly lacking in most schools around America today as recess and outdoor time diminishes in favor for more instructional time. I always felt that it was important for children to spend time outdoors, but these trips helped me appreciate and value it on a whole new level. It became increasingly important to me as an educator to make sure that I advocate for the importance of children playing and learning outdoors.