'I'm the principal at one of Australia's only nature schools. This is why we have a four year waitlist.'

Joanna Griffith is one of Australia's youngest principals at one of Australia's only nature schools, Kwoorabup Nature School in Western Australia.

In the past year alone, the school has seen a 70 per cent growth rate as demand for learning in harmony with nature increases. Joanna, who was previously the principal of a remote Aboriginal school in the Pilbara, says this makes sense when you consider what has changed in the last few years.

"We've learnt so much about how children learn, but our practice hasn't changed very much," mum-of-two Joanna says.

"Our school has this deeply ingrained ethos of following what's best for the child, rather than following the systematic way of schooling and education that stems from the last 100 years since the industrial revolution.

"It's progressive, exciting and leading the way with what the research is telling us is the best thing for children. And a big part of what we do is forging a connection with nature."

Kwoorabup Nature School in Denmark WA is a primary school for children from kindergarten to year six. The school began as a playgroup in the late '90s and has steadily grown with 113 enrolled students in 2023 and a very long waitlist that goes to 2027. 

So what exactly are the parents who register their newborns today, for a prized place at Kwoorabup in four years' time, interested in?

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"Each class from kindy to year, spends six hours a day outdoors every single week," Joanna says.

"A full day; come rain, hail or shine and in Denmark we get a lot of wet weather! We do different activities depending on the seasons, so when it's cold, wet and dark, that's when we have campfires and do cooking and we've built a little fairy garden for the children. We might go for long walks or for a bike ride because the weather's cool, but in summer we might go beach combing or for a swim at the spectacular Green Pool."

Image: Supplied.


Understanding and connecting with the Pibulmun and Mineng people of the Noongar nation is another important aspect to the daily learnings.

"We have indigenous elders that come to our school regularly and we teach the local Noongar language. The outdoor program is called 'walkabout' and it was made with an Aboriginal educator 10 or 15 years ago. Students really connect with the local environment, and really observing what's happening in the different seasons.

"At the school, we're surrounded by the local Karri forest, and we immerse the kids in our beautiful, really natural outdoor environment – not just sending them out onto the oval surrounded by grass."

It is not only the proximity to this glorious natural environment that Joanna says parents want for their kids, it is the proven outcomes of what spending time in this environment does for our kids and their wellbeing.

"There’s really hard evidence showing that children’s health, wellbeing and learning outcomes are all improved in nature.


"We talk about anxiety in this day and age as being ever present for our children where it can actually stunt brain development and cause real issues for children later in their life. And so we're working to make sure that the whole child is being supported through their education. One part is being outdoors in nature, but the other part of it is thinking about what we actually need our children to learn? 

"We help the children to learn how to assess risk for themselves from the start. They might climb a tree and asses how high up they feel safe, or what to do if they get a splinter. Because thinking long term, if kids are not exposed to any risks, what will their resilience be like as adults? How are they going to react if a drunk person invites them into their car when they're 18? Having that confidence and the neural pathways to actually assess the risk when it comes up, is really important."

Joanna is keen to point out that nature learning is very different to some other terms being used that offer alternative education, including the popular term 'unschooling'.

"With unschooling, there is often no structure, and nothing is imposed on a child. We are registered to teach the WA curriculum so there are many aspects that we have to teach that we work to make exciting. There are some vague parallels in our educational philosophy with learning based on children's interests, and clear links being made to real-life and authentic experiences. But nature or inquiry learning is not the same as unschooling."


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Joanna believes that the increase in interest from parents seeking other options for their children's education really picked up during the pandemic.

"I think COVID was a big kick up the bum, you know? There were lots of people questioning whether they are actually living the life that they wanted. We had a lot of people moving to Denmark, because it's a regional town with lots of nature; the forest, the river and the beautiful beaches. 

"I think too that people realise how being out in nature and being part of a connected community, is much more important than we thought in the past."

Looking ahead to the future, to a world has changed so much since the industrial revolution, Joanna says that schools need to provide kids with the skills that will actually set them up for real jobs. 

"We want our children to graduate with the skills to work collaboratively, to think creatively and critically. And there's that question about what jobs are robots going to be taking from us soon and we actually need our children to have a real strong sense of self and sense of identity. As teachers and parents we need to acknowledge that we will need a huge, diverse range of skills for a community to function. 

"There's a quote that says something like 50 per cent of the jobs that our children will have when they are adults don't even exist yet. So it's more about preparing kids with the skills of being a learner, being a researcher and a collaborator and all those things. The importance of that has really been undervalued in the past."


Image: Supplied.

So what can us parents do that like sound of nature learning and the benefits it bestows on our kids, but don't live near Denmark in WA or have a nature school nearby?


"Parents should take that time to observe what's happening around you," Joanna advises.

"Think seasonally and get your kids to consider their natural environment. One of the best ways to do that is to have a little veggie patch or a fruit tree to look at and observe. I think that's a really great way to engage children in a deeper understanding about nature because they recognise connections. In Denmark, there are particular times of the year that you can catch salmon really easily off the beach, but then they disappear again or times in the year that you're catching blue crabs, or seeing that the lizards and snakes are out and about. 

"If you make that connection between what's happening in the world around you to the season, it inspires children to ask more questions and make more connections about the natural environment. We want our kids to be curious, lifelong learners, not just learning the content that the curriculum tells us they should be learning."

To find out more about Kwoorabup Nature School in Denmark WA, visit the official website.

Laura Jackel is Mamamia's Family Writer. For links to her articles and to see photos of her outfits and kids, follow her on Instagram and TikTok.

Feature Image: Supplied/Photographer Serena Kirby.

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