I’m in the back end of a canoe in Zeck’s lagoon, an offshoot of Blackfellow’s Lake in Kalaru, wearing a scrap of towel as a blindfold while my seven-year-old son (who does not reliably know left from right) gives verbal directions towards our target: Troy Schulze, co-owner of Wild Cherry Nature Connection, who is sitting in a canoe in the middle of the lagoon, laughing silently as boats wend their way towards him in jagged lines.
Schulze and his partner Kerry Scott both have an outdoor education background (they met at university) and in addition, Schulze is a high school teacher. Last year, the two started Wild Cherry Nature Connection, following their passion to work outdoors with kids and be their own bosses.
The baseline goal of Wild Cherry Nature connection is to get people outside, reduce their anxiety, give them a fun experience and allow learning to follow, explains Scott.
“Even just having a wide view for a while, to see a landscape, instead of this intense focus we do a lot of,” Scott explains “it calms us, it’s scientifically proven to be therapeutic and reduce anxiety.”
Outdoor education has a scientific aspect, Scott says – for example, the physical learning of hypothesis, navigating and physics, but more than that, it’s an integration of all the senses, a sense of falling in love with our environment and returning to what our ancestors had – constant connection with outside environments.
As Scott takes us through some basic water safety and hand signals, (she once spent three weeks canoeing the Murray River) I look around at our motley crew of adults and children.
“There’s a reason I chose to use canoes and not kayaks today,” Scott says with a grin, “and that is that you really have to communicate in a canoe. The person in the back steers but you have to work together to make the canoe go straight.”
Schulze’s resume includes a stint working at Melbourne Methodist Ladies’ College Marshmead, an eight-week program for year nine students which is based at a remote campus near Mallacoota, so he knows a thing or two about how to facilitate an argument and resolve interpersonal issues.
“There’s everything we’re learning about the environment but then there’s the community stuff, the interpersonal stuff,” says Schulze. “We really have to be attuned to what’s going on with the group.”
During term time, Wild Cherry runs programs for homeschooled kids and teenagers twice a week and now, during school holidays, their programs are aimed more towards building family relationships.
“Whenever I feel like my son is struggling, I say ‘OK, time for a day at bush school,'” says Wild Cherry customer Sue Hill. “And he always comes home calm and inspired.”
While Schulze says he always has a lesson plan and ideas for activities in the back of his mind, he notices that “I often don’t end up using them. A stalemate rarely occurs – you take kids to the water and there’s enough energy in that to keep the playing and learning rolling along.”
Bega-raised Bronwyn Napiorkowski now lives in the Dandenong Ranges and has been attending a bush playgroup. Napiorkowski says she loves getting away from technology for the day.
“Being in nature – it really calms you down,” she laughs, “kids and mums!”
There are no toys at bush playgroup, just what the kids find to play with, says Napiorkowski. And when it rains, the group wears gumboots and rain pants.
Napiorkowski sees outdoor learning becoming more mainstream: “I think the group I’m part of started out being on the fringes but now there are over 500 members and we’re not all living an alternative lifestyle.”
Blindfolded on the lagoon in my canoe, I can hear water lapping against the boat and a breeze in the reeds. I feel like we’re about to crash into something at any minute but I have to trust my son to warn me if we are. I keep paddling, following his directions.
“Mum, turn right, a little bit more, OK, we’re there!” I hear him announce a minute later and I pull off the blindfold to find we are the first boat to reach Schulze.
I stare in wonder at my son – where did that focus come from? and how did he learn left from right so fast?“Being outdoors is essential to childhood development,” Scott says after we reach the shore, tired but happy. “But sometimes prioritising it can be hard. When we travel, I book us in for tours and lessons because then I know it will happen – we’ll spend time together in nature as a family without worrying about organising equipment or making plans. That’s what we want to do for others – make prioritising that connection, to nature and to each other, easier.”