Once each week these children spend their entire school day in the great outdoors, rain, snow or shine. They absolutely love it, and they learn a lot, too.
In Ottawa’s Meadowlands Public School first graders spend one day a week climbing trees, making stick forts, digging in the earth, searching for minnows, collecting feathers and leaves, and generally doing whatever it is that children do when released into the forest. They go out clean and neat, and they come home muddy and satisfied.
They partake of this woodland classroom at Ottawa’s Forest and Nature School, one of about 100 similar programs springing up throughout Canada these days. These kinds of nature-centered programs revolve around the concept that, for young students, nature is a great teacher and that children learn best when left to, mostly, their own imaginations and explorations.
I say mostly because the kids aren’t just released into the wild like animals to fend for themselves. There are adults there to guide them and help them in making decisions, such as whether or not a tree would be good to climb or to keep an eye on them when traversing slippery rocks.
But the time is really a “play-based education”, where the children largely direct themselves and what they’re interested in exploring.
“Play is children’s work and their job in life is to learn,” says Queen’s University experiential education professor Elizabath MacEachern. “They learn about balance and levers when they climb trees. They learn about compassion by watching others express and sort out their emotions. They learn what adults do by watching adults, whether that is sit at desks behind devices or take walks and notice where the leeks are coming up through the ground.”
The children are educated about dangers such as ticks and poison ivy, and deal with such possibilities from a standpoint of knowledge and awareness rather than fear. The same way a child learns to avoid crossing a busy street is the same way he or she learns to avoid dangerous plants or animals.
“There are risks everywhere. In the city, it’s pollution and traffic. Indoors, it could be online predators and household mould,” says Marlene Power, executive director of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.
Children learn the life skills of planning and making decisions, skills that help promote development and capable adults. “It’s a better indicator of future success than letter and number recognition,” says David Sobel, education professor at Antioch University New England in New Hampshire and author of Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning.
Counting and classifying found objects, journaling and note taking, even physics and engineering as students “learned about the principles of engineering by building a dam out of sticks” wrote Joanne Laucius in her original article. “Last week, a group of students spent all day building a ‘blacksmith shop’ and devising a bartering system for exchanging found objects,” she reported.
First grade teacher Jackie Whelan confirms that the things the children learn in the forest apply to their regular academic curriculum as well. “Bones or feathers could be so many different things in their imagination. They could be tools, or money,” said Whelan.
Additionally, physical skills and psychological confidence increased throughout the year as children were forced to move around in a forest filled with tree roots, rocks, fallen logs, streams, and up and down hills. “There are some children who have never walked on an uneven surface before,” said Whelan.
The benefits of this one-day-a-week forest classroom also extend to families and to helping children with learning challenges.
Children with Attention Deficit Disorder benefit from being outdoors. They are better able to focus and stay on task when exposed to nature. And parents of children in the program are also more inclined to do family things outdoors as well.
It sounds like a win-win in every sense of the word. But those of us who live an outdoors oriented lifestyle knew this instinctively. It’s fantastic that more young people are getting in on the secret.
Like what you see here? You can read more great articles by David Smith at his facebook page, Stumpjack Outdoors.