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Bush Farm's journey

Updated: Dec 17, 2021

A personal story of how it began.

Written by Katie Earle.


NZ born, going to primary school in Northern Ireland, I quickly learnt that school was a place of ongoing anxiety, hopelessness and dread. Subjects were taught by learning (and reciting) facts, often standing in front of the class. There was no relationship with my teachers, or contextual learning. I quickly sunk to the bottom of my class, where I remained for the next five years. My only sanctuary during school hours was the forest behind a closed gate, which they opened on Wednesdays. It was there, where I could relax and play. Returning to Aotearoa, as a ten-year-old, my programming had been so well wired with the internal dialogue, "I'm not bright enough". I struggled on. Only by my parents' strong belief in education and after school tutoring, did I get that B.A. I was done. I had to get out. I travelled through Africa and taught in Uganda for a couple of years. It was there that I realised my worst fear - I needed to go to Teacher's College. I headed back to NZ. It was no easy decision, and I hated every moment of that post-grad course where the notion of 'one size fits all' still permeated. It, however, got me into a low-decile school, something close to my heart. I spent all my weekends rummaging through resources that would engage and inspire the tamariki into learning. It was exhausting. I was told I cared too much and just focus on numeracy and literacy, and everything else would come. I was not convinced.

Then, it was in 2008, in the first year of my Masters of Science (MSc), that the magic happened. I learnt 1/ the importance of the psych-emotional or the 'lived sensory experiences' as a prerequisite for memory retention, 2/ the role of worldviews and 2/ learning could actually be fun! In my second year - I had my Ah-ha moment while sitting quietly amongst the wildflowers. I had just been reading about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and needed to just step outside and be still. Within minutes, unconsciously I became enamoured with Nature's abundance and the connectivity of life. There was so much going on! I imagined if we could get our tamariki learning from nature rather than within the four walls, what that could look like: Would they see themselves as part of Nature? Be buzzing out with the joy and interconnectedness of life? Would they begin to observe the patterns around them? See real-life problems? Look to Nature for solutions? The possibilities were endless.

This Ah-ha moment became my research thesis, which in turn became my sole purpose and drive. Returning to a low decile school, I asked the tamariki and whānau what they would like to see. I listened. Our class planned a school hangi. Tamariki did the maths by choosing and weighing the meat, the science by figuring out which rocks to use, and literacy by writing letters to sponsors and the wider community. I had buy-in. Tamariki and whānau were so engaged. It was a win-win (and probably remains one of the highlights of my career).

Through various paid positions, the ideas kept formulating and digesting as the concept began to take hold. Later, any doubt was erased when I had my first foray into consulting and successfully designed and implemented an educational curriculum package. So when the opportunity to spend a year visiting various Forest, Farm and Wilderness Schools in the USA and Canada, Bush Farm as a business began. I returned to Aotearoa and completed a six-month pilot programme in 2017/18 with my friend Naomi Ishihara.

I returned each year to the USA to deepen my practice (and philosophy) in Deep Nature Connection while maintaining Bush Farm programmes from October to April. In 2020 when the pandemic came, families asked for a full-year programme. By January 2021, it became clear that we needed to offer scholarships. It was decided that changing legal structures to a social enterprise (with a charity base), would build capacity and enable greater access for all tamariki, regardless of their socio-economic status, to attend Bush Farm. In July 2021, we became Bush Farm Education. A place where we mentor and walk alongside our learners; where we value time and building relationships; where we engage in authentic and meaningful learning opportunities that answer the why and the how; where we value the whole child. Indeed, a place that my primary school self would have thrived.


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