At NZ’s first bush school, kids play with knives, eat possums and are free to roam
The students at Deep Green Bush School are out of the classroom and being immersed in nature.
It’s lunch time at the Deep Green Bush School. The kids are hungry and decide it’s time to eat.
There are no lunch boxes. Instead, they start preparing a fire.
Fourteen-year-old Hamish Flemming sets to work with a handmade bow drill and fireboard. He yanks the wooden spindle back and forth, back and forth.
Baillie Rishworth had to learn proper safety techniques before being given unsupervised access to knives.
“It’s smoking, yep, I’ve got one,” he yells. “Where’s the tinder?”
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School co-founder and teacher Joey Moncarz brushes a hot ember into the tinder bundle and waves it around his head, ritualistically.
Deep Green Bush School co-founder and teacher Joey Moncarz shows students how to light a fire for lunch.
“I’m pretty hungry, Joey. If that fire goes out, God help yourself,” Hamish says.
It’s term two at the Deep Green Bush School, the first of its kind to be registered with the New Zealand Ministry of Education.
The school opened this year its eight students aged four to 14 are being schooled in a reserve in the rural south Auckland suburb of Clevedon until they gain resource consent to run from a permanent 25 acre site near south Auckland’s Hunua Ranges Regional Park.
The Deep Green Bush School from left: Heather, Oksana Simonoff, Tara, Hamish, Suri, Summer, Joey, Baillie, Patrick and Jacob.
Apart from being “gadget free”, there are few rules. Students explore shrubs and plants, catch prey, make tools, carry knifes, learn planting, weaving and anything else that nature throws at them.
There is no homework, there are no classes.
Moncarz, along with his partner Oksana Simonoff, wanted to create an environment where students are free to roam.
Patrick Holloway demonstrates fire lighting techniques.
Ditching the classroom in favour of the outdoors is all part of what he calls a ‘rewilding’ approach to education.
“Rewilding means more than just spending time in nature. It means forming a deep connection with the natural world and it means seeing the natural world as an extension of ourselves.
“Rewilding also involves recognising that humans are, at their core, gatherers and hunters,” he says.
Suri Komeshi socialising with Summer Ryan.
Moncarz moved to New Zealand 10 years ago from Florida. He taught in New Zealand high schools for five-and-a-half years before setting up the Kaitiaki Collective.
The initiative embraced the same approach to learning as the bush school, and was available mostly to home-schooled students.
Moncarz wanted to take the approach one step further, he says.
Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, chief science advisor to the prime minister, says modern technology is having a stifling impact on adolescent brains.
His time as a teacher in mainstream education left him feeling frustrated with all the “mindless paperwork” and its focus on technology.
“Ninety-five per cent of what happens in a school is completely irrelevant to these children’s lives.
“Schools always have to buy the latest technology, the latest gadgets and they have to buy a lot of it because they feel this urge to show that they’re modern and they’re not falling behind the times.”
Moncarz is often explaining himself, he says. He doesn’t mind being called an ‘environmentalist’, but he’s not sure about the word ‘hippie’.
The hippies were “ineffectual” and would just “sit around drumming, smoking and going to Grateful Dead concerts”.
The bush school has a deeper purpose, he says.
“It’s not computers and cell phones and cameras and gadgets that are going to keep us alive and healthy, it’s the natural world.
“So to be called a ‘nature school’ is kind of weird in a way because if you’re not a nature school then you’re a death school.”
A RISKY LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
Thirteen-year-old Heather Rowan is stoking the flames while Hamish puts a billycan on the fire and heats up some leftover pasta.
“Joey, do you own technology? Do you have a radio in your car?” Hamish asks.
“No, I got rid of the speakers and gave them to a flatmate,” Moncarz says.
Hamish says the bush school has given him “freedom”.
He’s no longer “disrupting the teacher” and getting told off for swinging on his chair.
Instead, he’s focused on the outdoors and enjoys making hunting tools and cooking up animals they’ve caught the day before.
On the lunch menu is everything from possums to pukekos and rabbits.
“Oh God, Joey even tried to eat a rat,” says Hamish.
“I was going to try it, but then I checked the liver and it was spotty,” Moncarz says.
“Yeah, Joey picks up road kill. He’s a real freak,” the eldest bush school pupil replies.
Hamish mentions one other rule of bush school: “If you’re not going to put good use to it or eat it, just respect it and leave it alone.”
Meanwhile, Rowan says she is getting a lot more out of her days at the bush school, than in her previous, conventional classroom.
The classroom environment of her old school was “boring” and home time was the only thing she looked forward to, she says.
“This school is different.
“Here, I’m ready for the day and you never know what’s going to happen so it’s a surprise.”
Sarah Ryan sends her six-year-old daughter Summer to the bush school and says the benefits are already paying off.
“It has been a pretty wild step for us, but the pros outweigh the perceived cons. There’s no going back.”
Her daughter’s first year at a mainstream school wasn’t working out, she says.
“When we used to pick her up from school, she was like a bull at the gate. She sat in a classroom all day with limited play time. She didn’t want to be sitting down reading all day.”
Now she is less anxious.
“She used to bite her nails a lot but doesn’t do that anymore. She has more freedom to do what she wants and it’s made for a more relaxed child.”
Summer is one of the school’s ‘peacekeepers’. Along with nine-year-old Jacob, she is responsible for helping sort out any problems or disputes.
She recently ruled that one of the kids must stay away from the art box for one week as punishment for spitting at another student.
Moncarz says the aim of the school is to have registered teachers assist with academic work but “only at the request of students, not parents”.
Gaining qualifications is fine but university is not something to “rush into”, he says.
He wants his students to avoid the “the death-trap of debt” in pursuit of higher education.
“When someone gets into debt, they don’t have the time or energy to do anything with the world or themselves except paying off the bills.”
School co-founder Oksana Simonoff says the nature-immersion philosophy is about creating a “fun and relaxed” environment where children learn through observation.
It gives them a place where they’re not overstimulated by technology or overmanaged by adults, and allows them to “take risks and do things in their own time”.
A DIFFERENT LEARNING MODEL
The Deep Green Bush School is modelled on a similar one in Massachusetts, United States, called Sudbury Valley School, which has been running since 1968.
The students there also learn what they want and how they want.
However, there is a stronger focus on the environment and more of a push against technology at the Deep Green Bush School, Simonoff says.
The school has also taken inspiration from one of the country’s preeminent scientists Sir Peter Gluckman’s research into the stifling effect modern society and technology is having on the development of adolescent brains.
Gluckman, inaugural chief science advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister, has argued that perhaps “we put too much attention on cognitive rather than non-cognitive development”.
“Perhaps we need to rebalance where and how we invest in our young people. We give no attention to life skills education in primary or secondary school,” Gluckman said in a 2010 speech.
Auckland University of Technology professor Nesta Devine, who researches educational philosophy and pedagogy, says the ‘forest school’ movement has been around since the end of the 18th century.
The teaching philosophy first emerged as a “reaction against the values of industrialism, both in terms of its focus on money and reducing human relationships to financial ones, and to its abuse of the natural world”.
It’s become particularly popular in Scandinavia and is represented in New Zealand’s early childhood sector, she says.
The forest school movement, such as the Deep Green Bush School, seems to be carrying on with this tradition.
“As to the success or otherwise of the the Deep Green Bush School, it really depends on what you mean by success.
“If you measure it against conventional forms of achievement such as standardised testing it is quite likely not to measure up.
“If you allow them to set up their own criteria for success — individual motivation to learn, confidence in finding out, competence in a natural context and so on — their students will probably outperform those in conventional schools.”
Private schools such as the Deep Green Bush School are not required to follow the NZ curriculum and can set their own hours of tuition.
Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey says schools are required to have a “suitable curriculum”.
She says when considering a private school’s registration, the Ministry takes into account the standard of teaching, the way its curriculum is delivered and the regularity of lessons.
Casey says Deep Green Bush School is taking a significantly different approach to delivering the curriculum by “connecting with the natural world to develop ecological wisdom”.
Whether the school gains full registration will be determined by its Education Review Office report, which is due within 12 months of provisional registration, she says.
Back in south Auckland, it’s the end of the school day. Tools have been made, gumboots are muddy, flax has been woven, fire has been created and six-year-old Summer has some news to share.
“Joey, I touched a bird. It was inside, I was slowly patting it and it didn’t mind. Then it went out the window and flew away.”
– Sunday Star Times
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