Australia's best preschool teacher advocates for more nature play

I remember my childhood spent outdoors with my siblings in the garden or the orchard next door. We had a lot more unsupervised play in nature.

Preschool teacher Almut Weiler Anderson, who works at KU Peter Pan Paddington Preschool, has been named the National Springfree Trampoline Early Childhood Educator of the Year at the 2017 Australian Family Early Education and Care Awards. Almut said she was surprised to be nominated by parents for the NSW award and humbled to be named the national winner.

Almut will use the professional development grants she received as National Early Childhood Educator of the Year to learn more about nature play, risk taking and leadership.

She submitted an essay and video to be selected for the NSW prize, and completed a presentation and Q&A session before the judges to win the national prize, which consists of more than $8000 to be spent on professional development and resources for her centre.

Almut emigrated from Germany in 2007 as a qualified primary school teacher, and began her career at International Grammar School in Sydney, where she worked as a preschool assistant and taught German.

Her qualifications were not recognised in Australia and she was unable to work as a preschool teacher, so she went on to do a Graduate Diploma in Early Childhood Education at Macquarie University, and then obtained a teaching position at South Coogee Preschool.

In 2012 Almut received some assistance from the IEU when the preschool changed to a long day care centre.

“I had a lot of questions, and I needed answers in regard to my entitlements, and the IEU was able to help me.

“I support the IEU’s Teachers Are Teachers campaign and follow the IEU on Facebook, as well as read all the publications.”

When asked ‘what she was most proud of’ during her presentation for the national prize, Almut highlighted working on improving her communication skills, particularly in regard to listening. She said she had read widely on the topic and acquired useful theoretical knowledge, for example from the teachings of Reggio Emilia, which she then put into practice.

She plans to use her grant money to continue her professional learning around nature pedagogy. She will attend a nature pedagogy conference in Brisbane this year as well as a six day course with Scottish outdoor play proponent Claire Warden next year.

“Nature play is very important to me for the children at my preschool as well as my own daughter.

“I want to learn more about the possibilities of learning in and with nature when the children are on excursions, as well as ways of bringing nature into the centre.”

Almut also wants to take the new Early Childhood Australia online leadership course and is interested in a directorship when her daughter Hannah is older. She might also extend her involvement at Macquarie University where she has been supporting prac students as a tertiary supervisor.

She is also interested in working as an early childhood consultant and facilitating courses both for early childhood professionals and for parents.

Almut has an interest in how risk taking and nature play intersect.

“I remember my childhood spent outdoors with my siblings in the garden or the orchard next door. We had a lot more unsupervised play in nature.

“In Germany children are still encouraged to do more things independently.”

Almut’s first picture book will be published in Germany next year.

It is a story about a little girl, Hannah, and her best friend, a teddy bear named Roseberry. When Hannah isn’t feeling brave enough to do something by herself, such as buying a pastry at the bakery next door, she asks her teddy bear to step in for her. But one morning Roseberry disappears and Hannah goes looking for her in the local neighbourhood. During her search she faces a number of challenges that she previously thought she could not master by herself.

“It’s all about empowerment, about encouraging agency and independence. In Germany it is more normal for children aged six to go to school by themselves or go to the bakery alone. In Australia this is not so common.”

Almut said children playing outdoors have a chance to practice risk taking, by deciding whether to jump from a log or not, for instance.

“It is a very calming environment, and children can focus without being distracted. If they see a bug they can really observe it.

“Also getting out in the fresh air and in the dirt, not living in an overly sanitised environment all the time is something I support.

“Offering children opportunities for risk taking in controlled environment and engaging them nature play is something I am keen to do for my own daughter as well as the children in my care.”

Sue Osborne