‘They are connecting to something greater than themselves’

Outdoor education programs a modern-day return to ancient methods of learning

As adults, we know that something as basic as yoga in the park or a weekend camping trip can calm us, invigorate us and recalibrate our frantic urban lives. The positive impact nature can have on our lives is unquestioned, so why are today’s children becoming less connected with it?

But there are hints of change,

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as outdoor education is increasingly catching on among Ottawa educators. Many say that immersing children in the natural world heightens the learning experience and offers many positive benefits.

As modern life become more urbanized, it becomes difficult for children to get out of the classroom and away from computer screens. And with the lack of mandatory physical education classes, children are less active than ever.

And today’s curriculum-based learning has left less flexibility for teachers to get the kids out of the classroom.

“As we become increasingly urbanized over time, people live in environments that aren’t as natural or rural as we once used to live,” says Angela Coleman, director of marketing and communications with the South Nation Conservation Authority, an Ottawa-area watershed protection agency.

“So it may be that an inner-city school child in sixth grade has never been outdoors to experience a walk on a trail or the natural environment.”

This disconnect with nature is not only unhealthy for children, but for the planet as well.

“We believe that by young people experiencing the natural environment, it makes them take a little bit more ownership or take a stewardship,” says Coleman.

Outdoor education is a modern-day return to the most ancient and basic method of learning, she says. It is based on the simple idea that immersing children in a world they may not have experienced before will maximize their learning experience.

Kristy Giles, manager of Conservation Lands at the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, says outdoor education benefits everyone.

“Boys might get to burn off steam and do more rugged things and the girls might get to explore and do things that they might not normally get to do, like sit in the dirt,” says Giles.

“We have a lot of children that come out with physical disabilities and who are getting out into natural areas that they may not often get into, so I would argue that there is something for everyone.”

Outdoor education programs are also a great way for new Canadians to better understand their adopted home.

“One of the programs we offer is an outdoor education program for maple syrup,” says Coleman.

“It is a maple sugaring education program and we’ve found as well that lots of new Canadians are enjoying that as well, because they get this experience of Canadiana.”

Ottawa’s Carp Ridge Forest Preschool may be one of the best local example of how outdoor education can be done.

Marlene Power founded the school after years of working in environmental education. She had long wondered why preschools weren’t incorporating the outdoors into

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the curriculum.

After much research, she discovered Japanese teaching concepts from the 1950s and used them to develop a new type of educational program. In 2008, she started Carp Ridge Forest Preschool.

Carp Ridge is a preschool that almost completely removes the classroom. Rather than have preschoolers spend a few days a year at a local park, Carp Ridge Forest Preschool has the children learning outdoors all day, every day.

“A typical day starts at 9 a.m. and they come with a whole slew of extra changes of clothing so they can get wet and muddy and fully engage, no matter whatever the weather,” says Power.

The school accepts students ages two to six, and the curriculum consists of all types of activity-based learning, including identifying plants, animal tracking and building fires, and nature-based craft-making.

“What I’ve seen in the past four years is children drastically improve in their physicality, in their fine and gross motor skills in a really short period of time, which is quite amazing,” says Power.

Before the school opened, much time was spent in community meetings, assuring parents that the risks were minimal.

“If we bubble-wrap children and keep them from doing anything what are the negative repercussions of that?” says Power.

“There is quite a bit of research on how that impacts on childhood health and mental health and a whole slew of other things as well as culturally what it is doing to our society to be so risk adverse.”

For Power, who is looking for new partnerships and hoping to expand the Carp Ridge program to include older children, the results so far have been nothing but positive.

“They are connecting to something greater than themselves,” says Power. “They are connecting to something greater than their toys and their things and they are connecting to a greater force.

“It is really wonderful to see that happening at such a young age.”

Author: By Dan Neutel
Photos: © Rideau Valley Conservation Authority