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Reconceptualising outdoor experiences – Hello Urban Atelier!

In recent times, there has been an explosion in the popularity of the ‘Bush Kinder’ programs in the early childhood sector. Inspired by the Forest Schools in the Nordic countries of Europe, Australian educators were keen to develop these programs. The 'bush kinder' programs generally operate offsite from the education and care service’s premises and provide valuable opportunities for children to explore the natural environment. Enthusiasts of these programs provide children with opportunities to experience unstructured play, with few or no resources other than the bountiful gifts of the great Australian outdoors.

Not every educator or every centre has an opportunity to develop a bush kinder program as their location may provide limitations.  However, does this matter?  Is there another way that we could conceptualise outdoor experiences?  I would like us to consider a new conceptualisation and name for the outdoor programs offered in the humble outdoor playground in early childhood education and care programs.  Move over ‘Bush Kinder’, what about an ‘Urban Atelier’?

What is an atelier? Originally a French word meaning workshop, this word was adopted by the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, a place in Italy that was voted by Newsweek as having the best preschools ‘in the world’.  Educators in Reggio Emilia have used the word atelier to represent a space; a space for possibilities, a space for research, a space for creativity and invention, a space for empathy and a space that is rich in resources for learning.  Why can’t we see our playgrounds as an atelier; a place for relationships, a place for connections and a place for learning?

Many families, whose children attend inner suburban centres want their children to have rich, daily experiences with nature, as many of them do not have decent sized backyards at home. Educators who recognise these contemporary circumstances could develop an Urban Atelier program as a strategy for children to explore both the surrounding urban environment while also experiencing nature within their playground. 

The drum of traffic, the whirring of helicopters and the nearby rattling of trains could be used as spontaneous learning experiences to talk about life in the city. So too, educators could plan to promote the development of life skills such as growing and preparing food, waste reduction, reusing, recycling and repurposing. Educators may use the provocation of both urban environments and nature to drive children’s imagination and creativity; they may ask children questions such as: ‘why do the leaves fall off the trees?’, ‘does a tree get cold when it loses its bark’ or how many cars drive by in a day and where do you think the people are going?

Imagine the possibilities if we could combine the affordances of the urban environment with the gifts of nature in intentionally planned environments?