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  • Writer's pictureBirthright Dev

Matters of life (and death) at Bush Farm School

Leaving their urban homes and usual routines behind, an intrepid group set out for Bush Farm School on Banks Peninsula. Their ‘classroom’ for this spring morning was a working organic farm practising biodiversity in Charteris Bay. Katie Earle, the School’s founder and lead kaiako, welcomed Birthright staff, clients and their kids (who ranged from 18 months to 4.5 years’ old) with a waiata and karakia.

Katie designs and delivers experiential place-based curriculums that showcase nature’s benefits, provide meaningful connections and educate for sustainability. For a few hours, Katie guided the visitors through a ‘Little Guardian’ session targeted at preschoolers. The kids were able to get hands on; feeding the cows and calves, watching them be milked, walking through the paddocks, observing and chatting before settling down for an epic morning tea.

“A big part of sessions like this is to help everyone be mindful, slow down and tune into their senses,” says Katie.

“Even 2 hours of breathing in the fresh air and exploring at their own pace – just being in nature – that is enough to make a difference to people. Sometimes, the adults are taken aback at how wonderful this process of slowing down is – and Birthright staff commented on that too!”

Part of Katie’s kaupapa of work is to observe what’s happening with the kids as they move through each experience, and it’s different for each child.

“A few kids were completely enamoured with the cows and calves – they loved feeding and touching them. However, it was slightly scary for two of the youngest ones; their Mum was really excited to be around these beautiful creatures though so I coached her that the cows like quiet, low voices and gentle movements and when she changed her approach the wee kids really responded to this too, modelling themselves on her,” Katie recalls.

Heading into the milk shed, the group watched the cows being milked and discussed where the milk they drink comes from. Feeling the cow’s udder and the suction machine was a unique experience for most of the families.

Walking the animals back to the paddock was a thrill for the young ones as they walked through cow pats and the older kids enjoyed the responsibility of latching the gate behind them. The compostable toilet was an outright hit, with the children “wanting to go every 2 minutes”.

Finding a dead sparrow turned out to be an opportunity to discuss death and decomposition. That moment made an impression on Summer, a 4.5-year-old who held and spoke to the dead bird. It was the first time she had encountered death says her mum, Stephanie, and she mentions it often.

Stephanie is no stranger to the country life herself, having grown up on a self-sufficient horse stud farm that grazed cows and sheep, and raised pigs and chickens for food.

“I love animals and I get a bit sad that I can’t give Summer the life I had growing up. Going to Willowbank just isn’t the same! We rent and haven’t been able to have pets so far either,” she says.

“It was really nice to see how Summer reacted to the trip – she was so excited and loved it. I was pleased that she listened so well and was nice and calm, kneeling down to pat the cows. At her age, she can understand that animals have feelings and she needs to control herself around them.”

Katie has worked as an educator in communities all over the world, in places as far-flung as Alaska and East Africa, but is now based in Banks Peninsula where she founded Bush Farm School. She recognises that for solo parents and their offspring, opportunities like this can be very freeing.

“They don’t have to worry about anything when they are in nature. For kids that may be experiencing difficulties, we see them change around animals – it often brings out empathy in a different way,” Katie says.

Anything that helps erase the worry she faces as a solo parent makes a huge difference to Stephanie’s outlook on life.

“Birthright has been a big help for me – particularly having people to talk to and who tell me it’s alright to feel stressed sometimes, that I’m doing a good job. I do everything for Summer and even then, it sometimes doesn’t feel enough. I don’t focus on myself so positive reinforcement really makes my day – I guess when you’re parenting on your own you don’t often get that,” she says.

That’s where things like the Birthright Christmas help significantly too. Stephanie was so grateful for the brand-new toys Summer received last year as it “took the stress off me”.

As our conversation draws to an end, Summer is hurriedly finishing her mouthful of afternoon tea so her Mum can understand what she is saying. It turns out she was saying “I want to go to the farm!” Stephanie hopes to take her back there when the farm opens its gates for public camping in the new year.


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