Moerlina’s Bush School

We are living in the age of Nature Deficit Disorder. This term, coined by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (2007), brings focus to the increased disconnection between children and nature. It warns us of the impacts this can have our children and society. 

Over the last few years, at our family and school-based programs, we are increasingly seeing this disconnection presenting as a fear of nature. Many children are reluctant to sit on grass due to sensory fears of being itchy, having a damp bottom or disliking the scratchy feel of leaves and twigs. They often also have a fear of ants or other unknown creatures that may sneak up and bite them while they are sitting. Squatting is no longer a viable alternative for many children. The muscular system in their legs and core are not accustomed to squatting, and so often children do not have the physical skills, or resilience, to hold a squat beyond 5 seconds. 

Through our interactions with children, we commonly see children who do not ‘feel at home’ in their own bodies. This makes it incredibly difficult to create a sense of safety and belonging among a community of other human beings as well as a feeling of belonging in nature. 

Recently, Daniel and Trudi were delighted to spend the day with the teachers and students from Moerlina School on their Bush School program. From the beginning of the day, our hearts were filled. Tears began to fill our eyes as the children were held in a community that felt safe with each other and within the bush.  

Maria Marsh, Moerlina’s Upper Primary Teacher and Bush School Coordinator, has been developing her own style of creating and holding space for nature connection for more than 12 years. We were in awe of how she wove a container of routines, rituals and protocols that held the students in a safe community. When children participate in regular routines, it creates a place of knowing what might happen in a world of so many unknowns. Much of the fear around nature for many children is not knowing what is there, what might cause harm, and what they have permission to do from their parents and teachers. When a layer of ‘knowing’ is placed in the diversity of nature, it creates safety and can open bravery for exploring the unknown. 

Many thought leaders in health are reflecting that the immense and rapid rate of change in technology and society is creating distress and impacting our mental health. This accelerated change requires both resilience and bravery. Many educators we talk with are noticing a rapid decline in resilience and an increase in ‘learned helplessness’ among their students. Mental Health and Child Protection programs are increasingly focused on empowering children to build resilience and strength in the face of the unknown. 

At Moerlina’s Bush School program, Maria empowers children through interactions based on respect and a believing in their capability. She creates space for input and decision-making with the students. The group participates in two pledges at the beginning of each session; one is a pledge to conduct their behaviour in a way that protects themselves, the community and nature, and the other to build resilience. In this pledge, Maria leads the students through possible events that may happen in the bush, preparing the students for some of the potential future ‘unknowns’. She lists possible occurrences, such as dropping food into the sand, being bitten by a mosquito or becoming lost. The students then respond with the reply, “We can handle it.” Children who struggled with a situation in previous sessions have a chance to be “checked on” by the community, their name is called, and a statement of their struggle is given, and they respond, “I can handle it.” Throughout the day, all the teachers who are supporting this group come back to this language of resilience building. When we live in a time with so much change and so many unknowns, Moerlina’s Bush School supports children in this pre-identification of possible scenarios. 

The other standout element of this program is the way that the teaching team held grief. This was the last Bush School session for the year, and some children were graduating or moving and would not return. In a group meeting, the children were prepared for the prospect of possible change in their lives, and all invited to participate in the grieving process – another resilience-building action. This acknowledgement of the special bonds that children make with nature is vital for deep nature connection. Love and grief go hand in hand, and so if we do not make space for this grief, rifts can form resulting in distrust and an apprehension in building strong relationships again. At the end of the session, special letters were written to the bush and given in a respectful and reverent ceremony.  

Daniel and Trudi were privileged to teach the students one of our favourite Wilderness Awareness Games, Eagle Eye (a hide-and-seek style game). This group of children were the best hiders we have come across in all our work! We believe this is because they had a strong connection with the bush, including relationships with the trees and plants, they felt comfortable in their own bodies and were calm and grounded. They are also resilient and were easily able push through visits from ants or spiders. 

It was an absolute delight to see such a strong, respectful, and empowering program for deep nature connection here in Perth. We look forward to seeing the Bush School program at Moerlina School continue to grow and develop.