Gowrie Carlton North, located on Wurundjeri land, is Gowrie Victoria’s original early learning service and demonstration site.  As generations of early childhood educators have come to observe the practice at Carlton North, they’ve also wondered at the unique outdoor space which covers a whole block and where children are immersed in learning all day, all year round. Alysia Partridge is the Educational Leader and shares the story of re-developing this renowned space.

As part of our commitment to being a sustainable community and connecting to Indigenous perspectives, our garden is integral to our daily routine.  As we prepared for the roll out of three-year-old kindergarten in Victoria, we decided to change the room structures which meant combining both our three to five-year old pre-school garden spaces. Our vision was of a cohabitated space that promotes the values that underpin our philosophy. A space that increases learning opportunities, where children engage together as a learning community and embeds an understanding of and care for our native environment through an Indigenous lens.

Being an older site, there have been many additions and changes to the outdoor environment over the years with some of structures, including vegetable garden beds, no longer usable. We also had duplicate areas such as two sandpits or two mud pits leaving a sense of disconnect for the children and educators as the environment didn’t flow as we wanted. 

Our plan focused on re-using what we could from our existing environment such as wood from the old garden beds, propagating larger plants, and involving children and families in the process such as through working bees. Relocating several modest vegetable gardens to an unused area of the site would allow children to sow, propagate, tend, and harvest, with direct access to compost and worm farms. 

Critical to the project was funding and external support. We were successful in applying for a Woolworths Landcare grant and a Bee Bonus grant. The Landcare online webinars were also aligned with our focus areas, we were supported with lesson plans, providing children with space to develop a strong sense of self, improve confidence, develop communication skills and to connect with and contribute to their world. Habitats for Wildlife visited to share their knowledge of increasing habitats with the children, they assessed our native plants and shared ideas for new plants to increase habitat for native animals. They gifted us a voucher for Bili Nursery, a native plant nursery selling tube stock plants.  Alongside this grant we reached out to Bunnings for donations including gloves and tools. 

One of my challenges as the Educational Leader was creating agency within the team and ensuring the knowledge developed through this project would support their own development and understanding of sustainable and Indigenous perspectives. Throughout the year, educator and children’s learning goals were linked through two of our Community of Practice groups (COPs) focused on sustainability and Indigenous Perspectives. Meetings were held once a month with one representative from each room. Bringing educators and children together ensured practice was current, knowledge was shared and supported by research and included the multiple voices of the service. These COPs created a dynamic sense of togetherness.

The seven months of the project spanned the whole gardening cycle. Throughout the process, children were involved in research, plant selection and decisions on where plants may be best suited for better productivity and connection to nature. Children maintained the garden allowing autonomy over their learning whilst also contributing to their sense of wellbeing. They expressed their wonder around plant lifecycles, Indigenous plants, insects and how we could improve soil quality through worm farms and composting. 

Children and families shared seeds and cuttings, conversations about the project became a consistent part of the day and it felt like Educators, families and children were all working towards a shared goal and all involved in the changes happening around them.

The learning benefits of a shared garden space meant co-constructed learning across all ages was possible as we came together to tend to the garden, share vocabulary and learn from each other whilst establishing a bio-diverse, pollenating garden of native plants, traditional herbs and vegetables that support our native bee population.

The learnings for children, families and educators set the foundation for continued exploration and connection with ongoing commitments being set in place.  We’ve built sustainable practices into the children’s routines and provided more opportunities to discuss Indigenous perspectives, contributing to the overall Quality Improvement Plan for the service. The project provided a foundation for awareness around the complexities of one’s environment, driving respect for nature and improving the value they’ll place on the environment later in life. Educators worked reflectively to include all the Early Years Learning Outcomes, utilising the many experiences and provocations to scaffold any learning goal as part of the project.

nature play and learning at gowrie kindergarten carlton

Exploring Country

Walking on Country to explore our natural world and the Environment. Children were encouraged to be on Country, discuss what this meant, take notice of the plants and insects around them with the aim of understanding the importance and beauty of Australian plants and animals. By collecting plants, exploring further using microscopes and recreating what we can see, children could learn how to use Information Communication Technology to research and form new curiosities. This was an important first step which led children into bee and insect exploration, indigenous edible and medicinal plants, noticing the animals that lived in our habitat which was supported with books and conversations around native animals.

bee and nature play learning at gowrie kindergarten

Bee Exploration

We explored Australian Native and European bees’ roles in nature and how important they are to plant biodiversity. This included experiences that teach children to identify bee anatomy, lifecycle and some local types of bees. Through the exploration, children fostered an interest in how to support and care for bees increasing the biodiversity within our garden including how to protect bees, habitats for bees by creating bee hotels and bee baths and monitoring the bees in our yard. This led to questions such as how we could bring more bees and support the insects using specific plants.

planting seeds and plants for nature play based learning gowrie

Seed Exploration

We explored plants and The (Wurundjeri) Guling, Poorneet, Buarth Gurru, Garrawang, seasons and the role our seasons play in plant lifecycles, how to recognise the seasons and the importance of plants in relation to our environment. This included planting seeds and seedlings (including the vegetable garden and flower gardens) specifically to create habitats for bees and insects.

children drawing themes of nature at kindergarten

Composting Worm Farm

As we explored biodiversity and the roles of animals and plants, it was important to consider the biodiversity within the soil prompting children to extend their curiosity to wonder about the roles of soil, worms and insects. Creating an indoor worm farm enabled children to see how worms turned plants and biodegradable materials into soil that our plants need to take nutrients from. We continued to care for our compost and worm farms outside and through conversation as part of these routines co-constructed our knowledge the consistency of this enabling children to identify and look after these completely and the agency to continue to do so each day.

Planting The Vegetable Garden

We used vegetable gardens to understand how the cycle of plants works, the role of insects and soil, and to discuss how plants connect us to the natural world and keep us alive through food. Being part of the creation of our vegetable gardens created a sense of accomplishment whilst gardening, adding to children’s wellbeing as they engaged in the physical work and experienced wonder and awe as the vegetables started to grow and harvested. Linking experiences such as science experiments to this helped children connect knowledge to previous learning.