Teaching in Nature in the Aussie bush. Sarah Mortimer - Call of the red dirt

Teaching in Nature in the Aussie bush. Sarah Mortimer - Call of the red dirt

I am sitting here on the verandah out the back of my house in Punmu looking out at the red sand dune that welcomes in each day.  The sky is peeping through the dark clouds as the sun and rain compete to start the wet season.  It is hot, heavy and still as everyone waits patiently for the rain.  There are so few people here in the last couple of days of school.  I would love to stay through the summer to see the depths of desert life.
— Sarah Mortimer, Teacher

I’ve been speaking to a lot of teachers this year! Robyn Tyner, Briony Taylor and John Deighan all teach at the La Chat Campus of International School of Geneva and I spoke to each of them about their work to bring education, in the broadest sense, to their charges.

Teachers constantly inspire me with their commitment to help children be the best they can be. It’s fundamentally a service profession and seldom a well paid one. I am uplifted by teachers’ dedication to their students and their tireless work to help young people venture into life armed with an open mind and a great sense of curiosity.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege to speak with another teacher - Sarah Mortimer. Sarah is an Australian early childhood educator and she is very inspiring!

Sarah couldn’t be teaching in a more different context than Robyn, Briony and John. Sarah teaches at the Rawa Community School in the Punmu Community, way out in the red dirt country of Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. It's one of Australia’s most remote communities. The Martu people, who were determined to protect their culture and independence, established Punmu in 1981.

Sarah grew up in rural Tasmania but felt the call of the red dirt to head out west after she’d qualified as a teacher. At Punmu, she found an indigenous Australian community who had established their own school. She learned that when the school had started, there’d been a strong focus on getting the children out in nature, “on-country”, but that this focus had gradually dissipated and had been replaced by more classroom based lessons.

Through her own research and interest and with support to explore more, Sarah learned about “Nature pedagogy”, a way of teaching based on the premise that every human is connected to nature, is part of nature and thus being in nature is a great place to learn things. She worked with the community Elders to establish the Nyiti Ranger Program for the children. It focuses on getting the kids out in nature, to learn in and with it. Sarah has co-authored a paper about the program. Here’s an excerpt that gives the background:

Once a week Sarah and Martu Education Worker, Danielle Booth load their students into the ‘troupie’ (the beloved Land Cruiser) and head out to one of the ‘wildspaces’ around the community, often accompanied by Elders and other community members.

The troupie bubbles with excitement as the children discuss where they are going and the possibilities when they get there.  Upon arrival the children bounce out of the troupie and begin exploring. Time is given for the children to connect with the space before the educators and Elders engage with them. 

These trips into the natural environment are carefully planned as part of the Nyiti Ranger Project (NRP). Sarah has clear curriculum outcomes in mind and each trip has a focus.  The program consists of learning experiences both inside and out of the classroom. 

The learning focuses on community sustainability (environmental and social); environmental management; leadership skills; developing communication skills (including using art as a communication tool); and using technology to enhance learning and communication.

Sarah says the NRP was developed as a response to the children’s desire to be active participants in their community and aims to maintain students’ connection with country, culture and language whilst developing knowledge and skills required to thrive in the wider society.

From: Gorman, Wendy and Mortimer, Sarah. Nature pedagogy in a remote context. Every Child, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2016: 12-13.

I recorded a Cooee! Podcast with Sarah and I share it here with great enthusiasm. To whet your appetite, the Punmu community gave me permission to post these photos of the landscape and some of the community members.

Sarah has a tremendous sense of calm and as I spoke with her, I found myself nestling into the discussion. We did enjoy a fine cup of tea and Finn, my deaf Jack Russell, joined Sarah for the chat. It seemed that all was as it should be - calm, slow paced and fascinating.

I really enjoyed speaking to Sarah and feel uplifted to know that she is out there working with the community in such an inspiring way. It reminded me of the importance of following your dream; no matter what obstacles life throws in your path. In our follow up communication, Sarah described it thus:

Bringing back a childhood for the children here that encompasses both traditional and western knowledge and way of life has been my dream and to sit here and feel I have made that happen when years ago I couldn't imagine even visiting a remote community is humbling.

I hope you can take half an hour to listen to Sarah’s podcast. You’ll enjoy getting insights into Sarah’s life at Punmu and also her journey to get there. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more about Nature pedagogy. It sounds terrific to me and I hope it can spread to become a fundamental part of kids’ education the world over. If it could, we might get adults more ready to act in a way that protects and respects Nature. Goodness knows we need it.

And just to mention, during the podcast, Sarah mentioned that it would be good to have the Year 11 and 12 program open to adult education. She’s since let me know that she has now created an adult education role for 2018 including year 11, 12, Martu teacher training, language teacher training, adult education support. Sarah said, “It is amazing how thoughts can turn into a reality.” Indeed. Thank you Sarah.

If you’d like to learn more about Nature Pedagogy, you could visit these links:



And here’s a link to the Punmu Community website. I’d so like to visit!

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John Deighan: A Passion to Teach

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