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Real Life

Meet the teachers who use the forest as their classroom

These teachers foster a love of learning in the great outdoors

When you think back to school, there's a good chance most of it was spent inside four walls, behind a desk. But in a pocket of bush on the Hibiscus Coast in Auckland is The Forest School – a long-held dream in action of husband-and-wife duo Gavin and Tennille Murdoch.
Instead of workbooks and tests, kids play freely in the bush, engineer drainage systems, build treehouses and shelters, use power tools, and take an active role in caring for the local bush and beach. They surf and snorkel, cook over the fire and create nature-inspired art.
"Children are more than just academic learners," insists mother-of-three Tennille, 43, who founded the school seven years ago. "Every day, we give them the chance to learn intellectually, physically, socially, emotionally and so much more.
"Often so much weight is put solely on the intellectual side of children's learning, but at the end of the day, all I want as a parent, and what most parents want, is to have happy kids who believe in their abilities and have the confidence to try new things. Learning to read is still essential, but we forget it's not everything."
It's a ground-breaking way to learn.
Each day at The Forest School there is a learning menu on offer highlighting experiences children can choose from. The morning starts with welcoming everyone, a team game and feeding the farm animals, followed by afternoons at the beach, then reflections from the day and cooking food over the fire to finish.
Talking to the Weekly, Tennille and Gavin, who are parents to sons Elliot, 24, Jesse, 14, and Jojo, 13, are clearly passionate about the alternative education they've created.
"The biggest thing we think about is high engagement," shares Gavin, who as a child delighted in escaping school to play in the nearby West Auckland bush. "Rather than prescribing what they're going to learn, we try to have these flexible experiences, driven by them where they're fully absorbed and engaged."
Tennille has been a primary school teacher for 22 years, while Gavin's career has seen him working in outdoor pursuits as a professional lifeguard featured on TV series Piha Rescue, and with at-risk youth and as a high school teacher.
"When we met in 2006, we were so different – like chalk and cheese," tells Tennille. "I was teaching at Kohimarama School in Mission Bay in my skirt and heels, while he was a Westie out at Piha. I never in my life thought I'd be teaching in the bush.
"But life changes you and being a mum of three boys certainly changes you!"
With their kids (from left) Jojo, Jesse and Elliot.
It was when their youngest son Jojo was struggling at primary school that Tennille took a leap of faith. Combining her play-based learning experience with the international research she'd been doing on forest schooling, she created an alternative option where Jojo and other kids could thrive.
"Jojo was the catalyst for big change, but I also see how play, especially nature play, benefits all children so much. My passion for teaching and love for children meant I had to do something different to meet their needs. I couldn't just do nothing."
Once they set a goal to start the first Forest School in New Zealand, Gavin knew his wife would succeed.
"You can see it when she talks about how much she loves children," he says proudly. "She's a real fighter for lots of things. You have to be when you're putting a stake in the ground that is really different to the norm in society. You have to be pretty strong to do that."
Tenille adds, "I was a single mum for eight years before I met Gavin. I had Elliot when I was 19 and put myself through teacher's college when he was six months old. I've always had a bit of fight in me and this was another thing I was determined to do."
The kids have a whale of a time reading with Tennille.
Now from Tuesday to Friday, 30 to 35 kids generally attend one day a week alongside school or home education, arriving at the idyllic property to learn and play, and it's a full-time job for the couple.
"There are more than 20 one-day nature schools nationwide now," says Gavin. "We knew it had the potential to impact education across the country and I hope this is just the start."
It's a constant commitment with plenty of hard work and admin after hours, but both agree it is the best, most fun job they've ever had.
"Gavin is so incredibly playful and clever," says Tennille. "In many ways, he's still that five-year-old playing in the bush. Even at 47, he still runs through the forest and climbs trees to get away from the kids during Manhunt – and they love it!"
To find out more, visit theforestschool.co.nz

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