Wide open spaces are a distinctive feature of the Australian landscape and perhaps like no other education system in the world, Australia offers its students many unique possibilities for outdoor learning in the natural environment and great opportunities for exploration and discovery.
This abundant natural classroom of plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud and water has played an increasingly prominent role in education curriculums, to teach children not only about their surroundings but to educate them to consider their impact on the environment.
According to a 2009 Federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) report: "Play spaces in natural environments... invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature.
"They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education," says the 2009 report, Belonging, Being and Becoming, The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, published by DEEWR.
Recent extreme weather events across Australia have brought climate change and environmental issues into sharp focus for many students and their families – even prompting the Australian Psychological Society (APS) to put together a tip sheet to guide adults talking to children about the environment.
According to the APS website: "It is likely that many children are aware of the threat of climate change. However it is also quite likely that they are confused about the facts and the extent of the threat they personally face, and might feel anxious, concerned or confused. Worries and anxieties about these threats can become difficult for children of all ages to deal with.
"On the other hand, children can also be very quick to grasp problems and are able to apply great energy and enthusiasm to putting solutions in place. The good thing about environmental problems is that we know what many of the solutions are, and many of them are very simple. Indeed, children are often reported to be better at getting going with environmental solutions than the adults are!"
In this twin environment of discovery and rapid environmental change, it's no surprise to discover that eco-excursions are something of a growth industry.
It's a situation that hasn't escaped the attention of education authorities either. The West Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) has a well-established eco-education strategy that encourages nature-based learning with the aim of conserving biodiversity and ecosystems.
In 2009, the DEC published a 46-page Eco Education guide to their curriculum-linked programs "to support students to understand sustainability concepts, achieve outcomes in all learning areas and develop environmental values".
Programs range from field trips to national parks and forests to explore the impact of fire on biodiversity conservation in dry sclerophyllous forest ecosystems, to exploring minimal impact processes in jarrah forests.
There's even a 'Forest Detectives Trail', where students use investigation and inquiry to solve a mystery, as an introduction to the concepts of scientific key and methodology. For little ones, there's 'Busy in the Forest', an early childhood program that introduces forest plants and animals to enhance sensory awareness of the natural environment.
Meanwhile, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, a sustainability education program for early childhood centres and preschools was initiated by the Gosford City and Wyong Shire Councils in 2004.
Called 'Little Green Steps', the program was developed "in response to an identified lack of environmental education resources and support available to local early childhood services for communicating sustainability messages to very young children (aged three to five years)."
The program included resource kits of posters, laminated learning cards and teaching aids that covered water, waste and wildlife resources, as well as energy and stormwater resources, all available to early childhood centres to borrow free of charge.
The overwhelming success of Little Green Steps led to its standing as a model for the way in which other local government, environmental and early childhood educators, might develop early childhood sustainability programs in future.
In 2007, Wyong Shire and Gosford City Councils with the help of the NSW Government's Environmental Trust published 'Climbing the Little Green Steps: How to promote sustainability within early childhood services in your area'. The guidebook is available to download at no cost from the 'Our Environment: it's a living thing' website at www.livingthing.net.au.
In the foreword to 'Climbing the Little Green Steps', NSW Early Childhood Environmental Education Network Convener Helen Nippard writes: "Children develop positive attitudes and values by engaging in open-ended learning experiences, by joining in discussions that explore solutions to the issues that we face, and by watching the adults around them model sustainable practices."
The popularity of the 'Little Green Steps' resource kits is just one of the program's successes noted by 'Climbing the Little Green Steps' author Mia Hughes and provides a working example of how effective resources and learning experiences can create valuable opportunities for education through outdoor activities.
"...The kits have been used in displays and during group time, but have also been used for spontaneous education, indoors and outdoors, to encourage environmental awareness in children," notes Hughes.
"They have inspired activities, paintings, drawings, songs and poems; been used during free play; incorporated into nature walks; and used as a tool to guide the development of new waste management systems and water-conservation campaigns in centres."
These WA and NSW examples of government support and interest in environmental education seem only set to grow. In this setting, it's no surprise to see private, as well as community, organisations offering students environmental experiences become an increasingly prominent feature of the school activities landscape.
Thornbill Eco Education in Narrawong, Victoria, produces 50-plus varieties of organically grown food on its organic farm site, and offers an extensive range of workshops to help increase understanding of biodiversity, water conservation, waste reduction and energy saving.
Thornbill's school workshops focus on investigating the local bushland and the Thornbill food garden, through their main outdoor teaching areas: the orchard, the vegetable garden, the indigenous gardens, the sheep paddocks, and a bushland conservation area.
Primary workshops at Thornbill are based around a choice of two-hour lessons that aim to increase students' understanding and appreciation of plants and the environment through hands-on activities.
The 'Wet and Dry Environments' workshop, for example, has children dip netting at the dam edge to capture aquatic creatures to examine, before leading into a discussion of life cycles, habitat, the effects of grazing and the effects of climate change.
'Insects and Other Mini-beasts' includes a hunt with a magnifying glass under the mulch in the food and indigenous gardens, as a lead in to learning about the role of invertebrates in soil and forest ecosystems
All lessons are closely linked to the state government's Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) framework and are conducted by qualified and experienced education staff. Primary workshops are modified for each age group / year level, as needed.
At secondary school level, students have the option to study 'Plant Classification', the 'Habitat Ecology of Mt Clay', or to learn the basic skills of sustainable gardening.
CERES Environment Park, in Melbourne's Brunswick East, is located beside the Merri Creek. What was once a 10-acre landfill site 30 years ago has today emerged as a thriving community hub hosting 60,000 people annually, including a thriving school excursion program, all designed around education for social and environmental sustainability. CERES schools program also offers incursions – where CERES comes to school, bringing with them interactive, hands-on and action-based activities.
The CERES programs follow the themes of land, energy, water and waste, as well as a 'multi-strand' offering.
'Land' considers the relationships between plants, animals and people with their physical environment, while 'Energy' looks at fossil fuels, their impact on the environment and alternative solutions, including renewable energy and energy efficiency.
'Water' programs focus on water conservation, water monitoring, enhanced water quality and aquatic ecosystems, while 'Waste' programs look at environmental problems caused by waste and strategies to overcome them, based on the 'rethink, reduce, reuse and recycle' philosophy.
CERES education manager Judy Glick has been involved in education programs at CERES for the past 14 years. Formerly a general science classroom teacher for 20 years, Judy has no doubt about the value excursions bring to learning experiences.
"An excursion is an excitement," says Judy.
"It can be used to kick start a unit of work, it can be used to reinforce, it can used as a reward at the end of a unit.
"But there must be intimate connection between the excursion and what's going on in the classroom – so they work together.
We have resources at CERES that schools don't have, because we use our resources over and over again – and they can leverage off what's learned at CERES."
CERES teachers are specialists in environmental education, says Judy, and are able to support learning in the way that schools may not be equipped to do, particularly in the area of climate change.
"[Climate change] has only come into public consciousness in the last few years," she says.
"When I started at CERES it was still regarded as 'hippie fringe', so teachers would come in and they would be learning with their students.
Many of [the teachers] would not have done much science at all beyond compulsory junior science... So they come to us and they get supported.
"Even walking onto CERES, you're not just walking into classroom. The whole site represents a different culture and a different way of doing things.
"The place itself is unexpected and it's different – even to the extent of the [composting] toilets and what we do with rubbish.
"CERES, as a whole, is an experience."
To access the Australian Psychological Society's Talking with Children About the Environment tip sheet, visit: psychology.org.au/publications/tip_sheets/children_environment/
For information about the WA Department of Environment and Conservation's EcoEducation programs, visit: dec.wa.gov.au
For information about the Little Green Steps program, visit the Wyong Shire website at: wyong.nsw.gov.au/environment/preschool_environmental_edu.html
For information about Thornbill Eco Education, visit: thornbill.com.au/
For information about Ceres Environment Park, visit: ceres.org.au
"Australia offers its students many unique possibilities for outdoor learning in the natural environment..."
The CERES programs follow the themes of land, energy, water and waste, as well as a 'multi-strand' offering.