Kids in mud

Auckland dad Harry Scott (Ngāi Tahu) teaches outdoor ed to young kids—although, really, they’re teaching themselves.

Written by      

Adrian Malloch

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Harry Scott, 29, is attempting to walk across a playground at Beach Haven Primary School on Auckland’s North Shore. He is barefoot, with a splat of mud on one cheek. Kids pelt across the courts and all but tackle him.

“Harry!”

“Harry!”

“Hey, Harry! What’s that, Harry?”

He’s carrying a pīwakawaka nest. He’s about to build the last lesson of the day around it. Teachers herd three classes of the youngest kids onto a grassy slope and shush them. Scott holds up his nest and explains that he found it in the school gully—a hallowed, if scrappy, strip of bush and stream just down the hill. Today, Scott says, the kids are going in there to make their own nests, out of whatever they can find. Not spit, he specifies. Although yes, granted, that is what birds use.

The gates to the gully swing open. The children are up and running. Within 20 seconds they’re in the stream, up trees, swarming through a drainage pipe, up the terraced banks.

Caged animals, Scott laughs. At this point in the school day kids always go harder, he’s noticed—they’ve been cooped up for ages. “Lots of these kids need this wild time. All they do is explore and sit in mud. That’s all good. I’m not constrained like our teachers are, so I can get away with a lot.”

So can the kids. A boy lands on the path in front of us, hands and feet already caked. “All right!” says Scott. “Looks like you found the mud!” The boy roars, and squeezes his fists until the clay squidges out.

One kid’s found a huge stalk of wild ginger and he’s desperate to smash it against something to see what’s inside. Cool, says Scott, just do it over there, away from the other… Whack. Too late. The boy sniffs the stalk, chucks it aside. Heads for the mud.

Over the next half hour or so, beaming kids present Scott with a multitude of nests. A single arum lily leaf, wrapped around a lining of buttercups. A thick clay basin with ivy leaves pressed into it. Straps of cabbage tree leaves smushed with mud. He raves about all of them, nudges the kids in new directions. What could you use to keep your nest dry? How are you going to attach it to the branch?

Other kids are on entirely different missions. One boy simply collects honeysuckle, holding it reverently in cupped hands. We round a corner and are confronted with a scene like that bit in Predator where Arnie rises up out of the mud. Only this is a little girl. “Ho-ly,” says Scott. “Can she open her eyes?” She cannot. (Apparently, after she’d coated her entire body in mud, someone pointed out that, actually, her eyelashes had no mud on them. She diligently rectified that.) Scott uses his little finger to wipe windows in her face.

School was not a fun place for Scott. He has severe dyslexia, and didn’t really thrive until high school, when he took an outdoor marine elective. Diving, boating, tramping, camping. “Really wicked,” he says. He ended up working for more than five years as an instructor at the Sir Peter Blake Marine Education and Recreation Centre, at Long Bay, half an hour from here. It was brilliant, Scott says, and he met people there who are still mentors.

But he started to wonder, as he took batch after batch of kids kayaking, sailing, and rock climbing in the stunning regional park, whether there was a better way of connecting young people to nature.

It was the structure and the props that bothered him. He also knew he didn’t want to push. He remembers running an abseiling class where “one poor girl was absolutely bricking it”. Unfortunately for her, Scott says, her dad was on the camp. As the girl bawled in terror, the dad pulled on a harness, came to the edge of the wall and peeled her fingers off the edge. Scott clocked the look on the girl’s face when she got to the bottom. “I was like, ‘This kid is never going to want to do anything like this ever again.’”

When COVID put school camps on ice, Scott started asking around: perhaps schools would like it if he brought camp to them? They would. He and his wife, Alex, launched a company, Barefooted NZ, and Scott booked up fast. He’s now teaching at this school and an intermediate, running Sky School, a nature-based programme he founded with a mate, and teaching a clutch of public classes for Auckland Council. Mission: help kids appreciate their local parks—not just the playgrounds, but the ngahere and waterways. The mud.

Scott, like the kids, is having an absolute ball. He brings his kids along on his weekend jobs—the couple have three under five—and during the week, he gets to go home to them at 3pm. He’s earning enough to keep things ticking over; he has no grand business ambitions. But he does want to change the world, just a little bit. He gets a kick out of watching kids go from timid and regimented to mud monsters. Afterwards, he does his best to wash off the worst of it—there’s a firehose waiting up the hill, and three fishbins the kids use as baths. But he also hopes some of what they did today will rub off on their parents.