Take a wander through Bush Park Wainui during the week and you could well come across a small group of pre-schoolers building huts and feeding eels in the stream, stringing their own “spiderwebs” between trees and frolicking with the fantails that flit just out of reach.
It is this secluded valley, which only locals seem to know about, that has become over the past year the extended outdoor play area for 10 of the oldest children from the childcare centre in Wallis Street – known now as Magnolia Tree Raglan but formerly Raglan Childcare & Education Centre.
“It’s our backyard,” laughs Magnolia Tree manager Anne Snowden of the 10-hectare Waikato District Council-owned reserve.
Every Tuesday and Friday morning – rain or shine – the centre’s 4 year olds are dropped off at the park by their parents, with lunchboxes and a spare change of clothes in their backpacks for the day.
Two teachers are there to meet them and supervise the day’s activities.
They and their young proteges stay till two in the afternoon when Raglan Shuttle picks them up and returns them to the childcare centre.
The programme – adopted after staff went to an inspirational all-outside, three-day conference in Auckland called Natural Phenomena – has been “an awesome success”, Anne says.
Feedback from parents and children has all been positive, she adds, “and it’s such a great opportunity for kids”.
The youngsters are allowed to get muddy or wet, they explore, problem-solve and discover simple things like the magical-looking red toadstools growing around the park’s dampest walking tracks.
There are big ones with flat tops and little ones with rounded tops, teacher Jane Moreton explains. The kids get to study their colour and shape, where exactly they grow and why. “They’re fascinated and ask lots of questions.”
They can now also name the birds and trees at the bush park, she says.
And they not only feed but also fish for eels in the Wainui Stream which meanders through the park. “They’ve pulled up only one eel onto the bank so far,” Jane adds. “They were squealing, then one of the boys threw it straight back in.”
Getting out in nature is the basis of the programme, and is described very specifically in the childcare centre’s strategic plan: “We want our tamariki to develop a sense of wonder, curiosity, freedom and respect for Tane, Tangaroa and Papatuanuku by connecting with nature and the natural world through play and exploration here at our own doorstep.”
Bush Park days can even include making camp bread and cooking sausages under the trees on a portable gas stove.
Outside of bush kindy there are other outings within walking distance of the Magnolia Tree centre – to the wharf, playgrounds and the beach, where at low tide they look for crabs.
There’s a big drive at most childcare centres now to do something in the great outdoors, Jane explains, to offset the time today’s children spend on technology and to foster a confident “I can do” attitude.
“We just wanted to share with the community that we are here and this is what we do,” Anne sums up.
There are also plans to relocate the centre’s office at the entranceway so Anne is more available to staff, children and parents.
Six months on from when Rachael and Steve Thomas bought the centre there’s now a website up and running and a Facebook page and new signage on the way.
There are also plans for teacher swaps for a day at a time between the Wallis Street centre and its sister Magnolia Tree Childcare in Whatawhata.