Kirsten Simmons on Building the Best Learning Environment & the Benefits of Outdoor Learning | HundrED Innovation Summit


Kirsten Simmons has worked in education for over 25 years and is the innovator behind Talking Tree Hill, an outdoor educational facility based on the gorgeous Waiheke island, in New Zealand. The school week is restructured to incorporate one day of learning outside, focusing children on becoming 'Outdoor Awesomepreneurs,' learning to love nature before protecting her and thus helping children develop skills in compassion, consciousness, and human creativity.


What led to the invention of Talking Tree Hill?

I have always had this vision that I was going to do something different with Education. After being a teacher for 25 years, it was time to do something for the students of New Zealand so we started the concept of a ‘one day school.’ It fits in with the education regulation of New Zealand, which is ‘The Education Act 1989.’ We wanted to build something where children could create their own authentic voice and also help with the mind-health of children in New Zealand. We set up Talking Tree Hill because we felt that there was a real need to get children outside or to ‘get out the door’, and knew that if children experience more outside, that's going to help with their mental health.

Talking Tree Hill was set up on 18 acres of land that has a forest school, a bush school, and a farm school; all the outdoor bits and bobs. It has a maker space, a tinkering shed and it is all around different ethoses because we believe that every child learns in their own way. We take on different pedagogies, for example, we take the conscious creativity of Doctor Seuss, adding a little bit of wackiness in there; the beauty of Reggio Emilia, the heart and soul of Forest & Bush Schools, the innovation and entrepreneurship of the Green Schools, and the head and heart of Steiner School. We mix it all up with a place-based education system that revolves around Te Ao Maori. We think that every education system should have a framework where their indigenous culture is at the forefront of it, where there is real respect for what that is, in terms of learning with children. We bring in a lot of the teachings in accordance with Te Ao Maori. In Te Ao Maori, Papatūānuku is the mother earth and Ranginui is the sky father, so we do a lot of teachings around land and have the children outside for 80% of the day. In a nutshell, that's what Talking Tree Hill is, and on an operational level, it means we do one-day schools, and we also do after school care and holiday programs. 


What would be the perfect school environment?

The perfect school environment for me is a place where children get to create their authentic voice. When you say that I instantly think ‘outdoors.’ I think that children need to move more. They need to be in an environment where they have all the tools around them that they can access whenever they need to.  They also have this incredible guide which is a teacher or in Maori language, a Kaiako. The Kaiako helps on a facilitation level by saying, ‘okay, you have this passion or this skill, and these are the things that you are really interested in; let’s see what we can do with it.’ So a huge aspect of the perfect school environment for me is being outside, learning from nature and then also bringing that in and letting them learn inside too. It is also making sure that the environment is balanced so that technology is part of it but it's not at the foremost, and choosing technology that works for the children and works for the place and for the concept.

We do eco passion projects where children will come up with an idea that they want to follow through. Sometimes they don’t want to follow it through, so we have to let it go and be flexible even if we think its a good idea. They can have the tools that they need, whether its a hammer and a nail or when we start to bring in technology, which we do when our children are over the age of ten. But it's not just about using technology because it's there, but rather about providing them with a broad range of things that they can access in the environment and things that allow them to learn what they want to learn from their heart. That way, it’s not just coming from an academic space.

The perfect learning environment is a space where each individual can get their needs met by their own exploration and curiosity. What we do is stand there and watch, observing how things can work, at the same time, being available to help them with what they need. There still has to be literacy, there still has to be all those aspects but you are taking it from the child and you are expanding it in a metacognitive way. For me, the learning environment is important because it is your third teacher. There is a lot in that question, but for me, this is what’s important. 


How does outdoor learning benefit children?

Immediately, it calms their mind; that's what I have found to be the case in my experience as an adult and from watching children. You probably know that yourself, when you get outside, take a deep breath and think ‘I can calm myself now.'  We have 70 thousand thoughts a day, so it can just bring your mind and your body back together so that you are working from a place where it's not busy all the time. You are observing, you get to explore, you get to be curious and it allows you room to move. Being outside, whether it's in a forest, a bush or a maker space where you are creating something, allows you to be innovative and creative with what you are doing. You have more space and you have more availability to observe the natural world and see what that brings in for you. So the benefits of being outside for me are just so huge and that's why we set up Talking Tree Hill, its because the benefits are numerous. We want to research even more about that, about how by simply being in nature we can quieten the mind and therefore help their learning; that the outdoors and nature is the teacher and that our learnings come by being outdoors, and by being a part of and respecting the nature. 

We also call the bush a pharmacy. You’ve got all the aspects of healing which can take place by going outside, and going outside is free! We teach children about all these different things when we are outside, such as meditation and yoga. All this stuff is free. You just have to walk outside and find spaces, and if we can teach them about those tools, by getting outside and doing those things, how much more will that help with their mental or mind-health? I like the term mind-health more. For me, the benefits are obviously huge and I think it also influences how we look after the planet. We learn to love her before we have to protect her and I think that’s a really strong thing to learn now. It's our responsibility as kaitiaki or the ambassadors, or what we call our outdoor awesome-preneurs; it's up to us to look after her, and I refer to nature as ‘her’ because in Te Ao Maori, Papatūānuku, is mother earth. What needs to happen now is making sure that she’s okay. So if they spend more time outside, the benefits are not only for the child, and people around them, but also for the community, and therefore the planet. Our tag line is ‘healthy children, healthy planet: re-imagining education.’ So we think the outdoors will help every child re-imagining, re-imagine the education they want to have, by simply accessing it, and having people that love it too. It’s important. 


What is the power of including indigenous culture in your work?

I think if you include then you understand the journey. Indigenous culture is often the first people on the land. Before there was colonization in New Zealand, our indigenous culture was there first. They had the first teachings, and they have these beautiful values, beliefs, and language. You’re bringing multi-culturalism right from the word go, and that’s the global world that we are in now and that's imperative, that's a must! Indigenous culture is the respect that we have for the people that went before us, and the people that are going ahead of us. They have values, they have skills, and they have all these beautiful traditions that need to be part of understanding who we are because that is where we came from. The indigenous culture of any land is an explanation of that land and the spirit and anything that encompasses it. I think everyone has to know where they are from and it's ignorant not to do that. In New Zealand in our multi-culture, the Waiata, the singing, it's strong, it's powerful and it's important. It also grounds you. Te Ao Maori in  New Zealand culture is the respect of the land and understanding of how everything works. 

In our program, we work in the Southern Cross, which is a constellation down south. We work towards the understandings and the guiding lights of how that works as well, where it's placed on your head, your heart, your hands, and your feet. If you want to walk forward you need to walk forward in the cultures that you’re involved with. I think we are getting much better at it and holding the space for that is important. Te Reo (Maori language) is a beautiful language and it's a language that is passed on orally as well.  We don’t want these things to be lost because it's our history, our pride, and our strength. Indigenous cultures bring in those things. If people watch a rugby game in New Zealand, they see a Haka (a ceremonial dance or challenge in Māori culture) which is powerful and emotional. I think indigenous culture brings in a lot of that stuff and I think that every single country needs to have that as part of their curriculum. That's what we would like people to go back to and remember. Don't leave it behind, make sure it's up there because that's the strength that you will get from it as well. I feel that even as I'm speaking to you, I feel that from my heart. It means something to me and it means something to where I live and therefore to how I educate. It’s that sense of belonging to the land and the contribution. All of those things weave into our indigenous culture. That’s a part of our work, and what I would like to pass on. It should be a part of everyone's work. 


Why do you think it is important for your work to be part of ed-policy?

The statistics in New Zealand for suicides were the highest in the world. It has to become policy so that we can see long term change for the mental health of our tamariki, our children. I see it at policy level because I think children need to spend more time playing. I think the industrial revolution broadened our education system but it's antiquated now, so I want to see our policymakers saying ‘we want an hour a day that everyone is outside in the school day, and we want to have one day where people just do their natural learning outside, however that looks.' We have this beautiful prime minister Jacinda Ardern, and she gives me hope with that idea, that maybe we can bring this change at a policy level. We don't want this to be bespoke at Talking Tree Hill, that's not the impact that we want to have. We want to have it at policy level. We want our government to say, ‘children need to spend time outside learning because it's really going to help with their mental health, it's going to help with all aspects of education.' The benefits go far beyond mental health or anything like that. If we have any impact moving forward, which is to get more children playing outside, learning how to meditate, do yoga, and learning from the land, Te Ao Maori’; it has to be at that level because that's where change is going to happen.

We don't have to rewrite policy, we don’t have to do any of those things. Talking Tree Hill could function quite happily with what we are doing because we love it, because people are on board with it and because children are happy. But if kids are happy, let's make it right throughout New Zealand as well. We have a fabulous curriculum in New Zealand, but it needs tweaking. We are this country that is 100% pure New Zealand. People see that everywhere, and it's beautiful. Let’s take our children into that beauty. Let's make it a day, every week, where you just spend that day outside. Make it easy, and in order to make it easy and doable, it has to be a policy.  It has to come from that level. To say, ‘you know what, the tamariki of New Zealand are going to really flourish if they spend more time outside, learning from Papatūānukui, learning from what's going on outside.' It's okay if teachers feel like, ‘oh no if we have this day outside, I'm not going to get this done. It’s going to disrupt the way I'm feeling about the curriculum and how it's going.' Just take those bits and learn to do it in another environment. We don’t want teachers to feel like its just another thing. Let's just create this day and see what happens.

It’s a great question that you ask because we do sit remotely out of that but that is not where I want to be. I want to be there because we want to affect change for children so that hopefully when they get into those latter years, there will be more considerations because that’s the statistic that needs to change. There is a guy in New Zealand called Mike King who is doing fabulous work at that level of going around schools and different places, and saying, ‘you know what, this suicide it's very real, what can we do about it?’ We want to see change, and we are just working on a small scale of doing that but we would look to our government to say ‘what do you think about these ideas? What can you do?' We need to make it easy so that teachers are not overwhelmed by a new concept. Children just love it so let's make it easy; and to make it easy, it has to come from that level. Those are my thoughts around it, and I feel very passionate about it. 

To learn more about Talking Tree Hill, visit their Innovation Page on HundrED.