This is not a field trip

Chad Hipolito

Dozens of parents lined up at the doors of the Sooke School District office on Vancouver Island’s West Coast one chilled, rainy evening last February and spent the night under tarps and blankets and with thermoses of hot chocolate—all to land their children spots at a pilot kindergarten program, one that’s part of a quiet revolution in early childhood education spreading across the country. The movement’s main feature? Kids playing in the great outdoors.

In public schools, private schools and preschools from Roachville, N.B., to Red Deer, Alta., and Sooke, B.C., teachers and early childhood educators are rolling out programs where young children spend a big chunk of time exploring the natural world—in some cases, all day, every day, even through the dead of winter. At a time when free play is in a well-documented decline in Canadian kids’ lives, these schools represent a new push to see children leave the formal classroom behind.

In the “nature kindergarten” program at Sangster Elementary School in Sooke, four-year-olds spend each morning in the forest or at the beach, mostly engaged in what’s called play-based learning; teachers develop lessons around whatever captivates the kids: the clouds, pine cones, the anatomy of worms. No one asks when is it time to go inside, says Frances Krusekopf, a public school principal who spearheaded the program’s creation and hired a childhood educator, on a $25,000 salary funded by grants, to help the regular teacher. Amid the heavy downpours of winter, Krusekopf says the kids “notice the puddles, they notice the quantity of worms has gone up.”

Wrapping up year 1 of a two-year experiment, the program is an example of what are typically called forest schools. There are at least 15 in Canada, mainly private and including Tír na nÓg in Roachville, N.B., which will charge $9,500 per year, with more set to open this fall. The organization Forest Schools Canada launched this year to help shape the mostly grassroots movement. It offers training programs, encourages colleges to add forest-school-derived courses to the curriculum and is creating a network for sharing best practices.

Forest schools, while avant-garde here, are not new in Europe. The concept of teaching young kids in wildlife settings began in Sweden in the 1950s, became a hallmark of Danish and German early childhood education in the 1980s and has gained momentum worldwide. There are 200 schools in the U.K., 700 in Germany, and some in Japan, China and the U.S.

As CEO of Forest Schools Canada, Marlene Power has become the de facto leader of the movement in Canada. She fields calls and emails at her new office in Ottawa, many from people keen to start their own programs. Power launched one of the country’s first private forest schools outside Ottawa in 2008. She’s used to skepticism about a program where preschoolers, bundled in snowsuits, spend much of the winter in the snowy forest. It’s “the best season by far,” she declares (black-fly season is the worst). “That’s when you can see tracks, animals, birds and bird feeders,” she says, and teach the kids why birds fly south, or about the oxygen in their breath as it hangs in the cold. They build fires and warm up in tents. Only when it drops to -20° C do they spend some of the day indoors.

Yet scientific research into the benefits of play on a child’s development is sparse. University of Victoria developmental psychologist Ulrich Mueller says only a handful of quality quantitative studies exist. He’s among a group of researchers studying the Sooke program’s impact on children by testing their motor skills—a major determinant for whether kids will take up sports later on—as well as their levels of activity, and ability to self-regulate emotions and actions. The data will be compared to a control group of regular kindergartners. The study was meant to run the full two years of the pilot, but was restricted to one year when funding fell through. The results will be out this fall.

But parents inclined to believe in the benefits aren’t waiting for the proof. Candice Hall’s son is part of the first cohort in Sooke, and she spent that February night on the school district’s doorstep to ensure a spot for her daughter this fall. She says she’s already seen the evidence in Ryland, 6, who now thinks nothing of sitting in wet sand to watch the waves, and who hasn’t demonstrated a single behavioural problem at school this year, despite a history of such incidents stemming from a speech delay. The biggest drawback for parents like Hall is the laundry. At one Forest School launching in Roachville in September, each kid will need two extra sets of weather-appropriate clothes, right down to the underwear. In Sooke, one extra set is required. “You just have to be organized,” says Hall, and look on the bright side. “When they come home really dirty,” she says, “that means they’ve had a good day.”

Early education: this is not a field trip

  1. What was wrong with reading, writing and arithmetic?

    This is just ‘playing in the yard’

    • I run a not for profit Forest School (www.treehouselearning.co.uk) in England and can say first hand that this is not “just ‘playing in the yard.’” I have seen the children in my classes grow and develop incredible amounts. Not only are they developing in ways that they would do in a traditional setting but they are learning so much more in the meantime. I think all children should be given the opportunity to learn in this way. Way to go Sangster Elementary for piloting something so wonderful.

      • Playing outside is certainly learning…..but this is overdone. Kids have been playing and learning and working outside for thousands of years….we don’t need to keep doing it….and certainly not to this extent….in the 21st century.

        • EmilyOne – it is truly a shame that you have such a narrow opinion of this wonderful program. My daughter is currently a part of Sangster Elementary’s Nature Kindergarten class and it has been unbelievably beneficial for her and her colleagues. Please keep in mind, too, that 2012-13 was the first year in Victoria, BC where kindergarten was to be a full day (rather than the traditional half day). This way, the children are in nature from 8:45am – 11:45am, then after lunch, in the classroom until 2:45pm. Really, this is the best possible way to introduce a 5 year old to ‘all-day’ school. Bravo to Lisa Lockerbie and Erin van Stone for an amazing first year!

          • It makes Kindergarten into what people have always accused it of being….baby-sitting

            What are we doing in our school system that we have to ‘ease’ kids into it??

          • It’s hard to understand how someone could read this piece and still think the time spent outdoors amounts to “babysitting”. The forest and the beach are great classrooms if you have good teachers – or interested parents. As someone who volunteered in my kids’ classrooms in pre-school, kindergarten and early grades, I can say that anything is better than the time-wasting that goes on in a traditional classroom. Lining kids up, marching them to the library, and having them select a book without assistance is NOT a reading program, it’s a lining up and marching program. I would have waited overnight in the rain to get my kids into a program like this.

          • Or…..you could have just opened the door and let them out. Or taken them to a park.

          • I did that, too. They grew up with a river and park system in the back yard and weekends and holidays spent at the shore. However, many parents don’t have the luxury of being able to stay at home with their children. You are strangely rigid in your approach to education. You must be a public school teacher.

          • LOL education means education….that’s hardly rigid.

            And no, I’m not a teacher

          • Please do not generalize all public school teachers. You are do not know all public school teachers. As a thirty plus year public school teacher I love reading about new approaches and implementing new ideas. I am sorry you have had such a limited experience.

          • WOW do you even have kids of your own?

          • Grandchildren too.

        • Emily, I teach these types of classes to kids around Winnipeg. I have a B.B.A and an M.E.S… I’ve worked for the UN and lived around the world. I’d hardly say, with my educational and professional background, what I teach these kids amounts to babysitting. These kids are in many ways far more intellectual than those that are learning basic curriculum. I remember… I went to “traditional elementary school” once upon a time and remembered thinking “What’s the point of learning all this crap”.

          What we’ve done with this type of programming is designed a more holistic learning style, which incorporates math, vocabulary, georgraphy. This isn’t just… “let’s run around and pick up sticks and throw them”. Because it’s more engaging, kids aren’t falling asleep, losing concentration, etc. They also learn a deeper respect for nature and it’s surroundings… something that may have existed for thousands of years… but is certainly a mentality that we’re losing here in this “less progressive than you’d think” 21st century.

          • We never had any appreciation for nature….we’ve spent thousands of years trying to get out of it!

            Now let’s get on with math and science and language, and leave playing in mud puddles behind.

  2. I have worked as a park naturalist, a historic site interpreter and have witnessed the shine in a student’s eyes when they “get” the teaching moment. An informal setting can be stimulating.

  3. Put a kid behind a desk, you teach them to be a desk jockey. Put them in nature, you teach them to become a steward of the natural world. Which of these are we lacking?

  4. Hoooorah for learning through nature!! Such a perfect way to deliver curriculum while instilling values that will last a lifetime! Love it! Cant wait for my 3 year old son to teach me about how to be a better teacher after he attends this year!. I cant wait to learn through his eyes!
    Noticing that some people just enjoy arguing for the sake of expressing their ill-conceived version of an imbecilic opinion. Glad I don’t have to love with such negativity and ignorance.

  5. I think it’s great to include outdoor activities as well as the “3R”s in early education, especially pre-school. A place like http://jellybeanpark.com/ tries to combine education with activity – something that can be lacking in a world of video games.

  6. anyone know the name of the school in red deer? thanks.

  7. Its some kind of an interesting article that can give some different early school learner’s to know. You have the right ideas about this learning situation that mostly happened in some school. Maybe it will be better if some education programs will not be putted outside the campus for it might tend to have an incident for some early learner’s.

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