Twins Eamonn and Eddie Ryan-Wells loving the tree swing at New Forest school. PHOTO/CLAIRE WELLS

Hayley Gastmeier

Hella Coenen has opened the New Forest school on her Mikimiki property. PHOTO/HAYLEY GASTMEIER

Letting children be free to explore, imagine, and connect with nature is the name of the game for Hella Coenen.

On her 97ha property in the Mikimiki valley north of Masterton, Hella has opened the New Forest school, an outdoor learning environment where youngsters can interact with and enjoy the natural world.

Wairarapa childcare centres, kindergartens, and schools have been frequenting New Forest, which offers a one-day programme in outdoor classrooms with activities that fit into the national education curriculum.

Hella said she had a “pretty adventurous childhood” in the Dutch countryside.

She said living in a world in which “technology has taken over”, many kids these days spend much of their time in front of a screen.

“At New Forest we want to give back to nature, and give back to our children the same freedom we once enjoyed.

“We will have to hand over the responsibility to care for the land to our future generations one day, and by exposing and connecting children to the natural environment they will be able to form lasting relationships, help to care for the natural world and become true kaitiaki or guardians.”

The school’s programme, which incorporates tikanga Maori, is based in four outdoor areas, which children visit in groups on a rotation.

In the Kahikatea classroom, children explore the streambed, looking for baby kōura [freshwater crayfish] under rocks, build huts, climb trees, create art using items found in nature, play in the mud ‘kitchen’, and peep in weta motels.

The Black Maire Tree classroom has a balancing beam, a crawling tunnel, and a muddy wetland to explore. Here, children also practise knotting and whittling sticks, which they then use to cook damper around an
open fire.

The fire area is a short walk up the hill, on which abandoned rabbit holes and wildlife can be spotted.

There is also a walking track to the top lookout that has magnificent views over Masterton and the Tararua Range.

Hella Coenen captures the children’s attention with a story. PHOTO/CLAIRE WELLS

Hella always ends the sessions with a story, usually a Maori legend, such as ‘How the kiwi lost its wings’.

She said the outdoor environment sparks children’s imagination and reignites a love for learning in those falling behind in the traditional classroom.

Hella spent 15 years teaching in Rudolf Steiner kindergartens and has also worked as an early childhood reliever in Wairarapa.

She officially opened the New Forest school in 2019, and has since hosted visits from many Wairarapa schools and early education centres.

Earlier this month, Harry, who is almost 2, was enjoying his visit with his dad Will Prior.

“He usually comes with his mum, and he loves it,” Will said.

“I couldn’t get him out of the water. He was just throwing rocks in the creek. He found a little freshwater crayfish, and he got his hands in the clay and he was throwing it into a big bucket and making a mess.”

Will said Harry liked picking and eating berries, and learnt how to crawl through a tunnel.

Harry Prior getting creative with his clay potion. PHOTO/HELLA COENEN

“It took a bit of persuasion from dad – I had to show him what to do.”

Will said he liked how the programme was outdoor based where “anything goes”.

Claire Wells is also a regular to New Forest with her twin boys, Eamonn and Eddie Ryan-Wells.

She said her toddlers loved looking for bugs and getting messy, while she liked the fact that children were given freedom of choice.

Claire said Hella had a unique knack with kids.

“She has a gift for teaching and storytelling and enriches the lives of the families who are blessed to know her.

“Her depth of knowledge and experience are hidden behind a gentle approach to teaching, and watching her enchant the children with a story beneath the trees using handcrafted, felted birds is just magical.”

New Forest school is open to all parents and children on the first Friday of each month, with a koha entry. Further details can be found on the New Forest Facebook page.