If you live or visit Vancouver, sighting a Pacific Blue Heron is as likely as seeing a seagull or a Canada Goose. Usually, it is one large statuesque and graceful bird alone on the golf course or at the beach during low tide. New discovery today. The Great Blue Heron Rookery is part of my Stanley Park bike route. Who knew? They have returned to their address at 2099 Beach Avenue, the trees outside The Parks Board building, and apparently have been doing so for 20 years!
Looking up during a sunny bike ride was not what led to this discovery. I have nearly made it through all 111 Places in Vancouver That You Must Not Miss, the book by Dave Doroghy and Graeme Menzies. This is number 98 and the perfect time to discover it. The Vancouver Parks Board has installed a webcam ( Vancouver.ca/herons ) for viewing their arrival in March; courtship in April; egg laying and incubation in May; chick rearing in June; and fledging in July.
Without the leaves on the trees, you can see SO many nests, seemingly empty. Then an eagle comes cruising by. Instantly the sky is filled with masses of our very closest renditions to prehistoric pterodactyls in flight. Apparently, we are home to the largest urban blue heron colonies in North America. One third of the great blue heron population in the world live around the Salish Sea aka the part of the Pacific Ocean by British Columbia and Washington.
After the big commotion, the herons return to the nests, but this time assume a far more visible stance. Some on branches or on the edges of nests. Some appear to be visiting between the trees. They have diversions from the tennis courts, the lawn bowling club, and the people staring up at them. For me, it is the excitement of a new discovery. How could I have missed this? I’m looking forward to checking out the webcam at regular intervals and letting all my Wild About Vancouver outdoor enthusiasts about it.
Another discovery is that Stanley Park Ecology Society has started an Adopt a Nest Program to sustain the Pacific Great Blue Heron colony. It is $54.00 to adopt one nest for a year. There are over 100 nests in 25 trees in Stanley Park. I’m excited about doing this with the students at Livingstone Elementary School to support learning in all curriculum areas and build interest in our Twitcher group. The kids like the name. Although our sightings are not usually rare, they are equally as exciting when someone can identify the bird 🙂
What makes a person notice? What makes one person look out the window in the morning and see rain and another person look out the window and notice the exceptionally red breast of the robin trying to pull the long, stretchy worm out of the ground? Or the difference in the appearance of the cherry blossoms in spring as you travel east through Vancouver? Or the difference between happy chirping and the sound of going to war to protect young from predators? Why does the curiosity of the very young diminish as some people grow older but emerge as artistic creation or scientific discovery or unbridled joy in others?
Noticing comes easily to preschoolers. A short walk can take hours because it is punctuated with countless numbers of studies of rocks, branches, bugs, and wonderings. I have recently framed a study of birds to hone the observational skills of Kindergarten to Grade 7 students while they are doing “SchoolAtHome” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teaching kids to be observers in a face-to-face context is nothing less than joyful. Discovery is exciting, whether you are making the discovery or watching the “eureka” moment in child. Of course I speak with the perspective of a long time educator. In the early years of school, all we need to do is take kids outside and give them time. To look. To listen. To smell. To touch. To note changes over time. Adding a few open-ended questions sends them deeper into their observational studies. More focused attention from the obvious to minute detail evolves when you teach older children to use a ruler, a magnifying glass, a set of binoculars, a camera or an iPad with picture and video capacity and provide a format for observations. Encouragement to make anecdotal notes with drawings of observations unleashes creativity.
When I was little girl, I lived close to Jericho Beach by a big vacant lot. I called it “The Baking Lot”. It made sense because all of the neighbourhood kids went to make mud pies and squish in the mud. We rescued our rubber boots when they were sucked off our feet. We caught tadpoles, frogs, butterflies and bugs. We braved stings to capture bees and wasps in glass bottles so we could study them close up. We ventured further afield to the beach and created habitats for our collected crabs to live in. We built castles that were gobbled by insatiable waves. Our curiosity was never satisfied and our attention to detail was ever present.
When all of the older kids went off to school, Gordon, John and I were left behind to continue our explorations under the supervision of their mother. This opened up another world of discovery to me. The world of “boy” toys. Growing up in the 60’s with an older sister limited my world to dolls, and fancy dresses. Now I was able to explore the world of Hot Wheels and pedal cars. Outdoor observations were assisted with Tonka Trucks as we excavated the land for new bug habitats in the backyard. We got very dirty and it was all very acceptable and even encouraged.
John and I both emerged into adulthood, still curious and still friends with the unconditional acceptance of tight knit families. In fact for many years, my kids thought we were related. John’s curiosity took him into a fascination with antiquity, a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Classical Studies and a Diploma in Fine Arts. My curiosity pushed me to try new things like snow skiing, water skiing, snowboarding, canoeing, hiking, biking, travel, meeting new people and developing interesting relationships. I emerged with a Bachelor of Education Degree, a Master of Arts Degree in Education with continued diplomas and credentials in language, Special Education, leadership and management.
Both John and I continue to be friends. Our differences are more readily apparent than our similarities. He fits the typical mold of an introvert. I fit the typical mold of an extrovert. Both of us are voracious readers and lovers of language. We are definitely mourning the loss of Bard on the Beach this season due to the COVID-19 restriction on large gatherings. John’s thinking is clarified through listening, reading, art and the lens of a camera. His understanding of the world is most often communicated in cartoons, paintings and photographs. My thoughts are formed through listening, reading, writing, talking (to myself, to a series of family dogs, to kids, to adults) and through writing. My thinking is expressed through language. Yet our biggest similarity is that both of us continue to notice. There is no doubt that asking questions has led both of us down paths to find the answers that matter to us. It has been important to our learning but it has also been important to how we experience joy in our lives. Noticing details changes how we experience the world.
Our paths have recently converged once again. His fancy new camera has focused his attention on capturing the solar system, birds, flowers, the ocean – everything nature. His mode of communicating his learning – posting the images on Facebook with the name of each bird and observations. I have channeled his learning into the challenge of teaching observational skills to students online, entice kids to go outside daily for physically distanced activity, and help them to experience joy and gratitude during this tumultuous time. He has indulged me with setting up a Twitter account @JStCPatrick to tweet out his posts on birds so I can retweet them @LivingstoneVSB and Wild About Vancouver @WildAboutVan. I hope the sounds, scenes and details about our local birds will pique the interest of my students at Livingstone Elementary. And of course, I am thinking this may be a future book that John and I co-author.
We all have opportunities to take a closer look. When we pause to do it, often that is when the discoveries and experiences that mattered most in our lives happen. It requires a concerted effort to invest the time and create the space to notice the details. It guarantees learning, joy in the experience and a sense of gratitude for all that is amazing. For John and I, it has made all the difference.
A gorgeous day, a set of Outdoor Learning backpacks, some new resources purchased at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, and a couple of primary classes ready to embrace learning outdoors, all conspired to create the conditions for miracles in the Livingstone Garden this week. We grouped in the library for Twitching 101:
Everything in the backpack goes back in the backpack (binoculars, compass, magnifying glass, waterproof notebook, pencil, ruler)
If you can’t see through the binoculars, ask a friend for help
Take good care of the binoculars and put them back in their special case
In Vancouver, the mountains are north – Use this information to check your compass skills
The new resources from the Reifel Bird Sanctuary are kept in Backpack #1. Feel free to use them and then return them to the bench in the garden.
The birds are most likely to come closer if you are very quiet.
There are several sources of food for birds in the garden. See how many you can find.
We converged on the garden. Nothing close to quiet was even remotely part of our Twitching endeavours. Yet, our recent Green Thumb Theatre production had brought a new level of cool to “twitching” – the British term for people out in search of rare birds. In our case, we’re happy with any birds. Frustrations over binoculars that didn’t work were overcome. Sea gulls were spotted in front of the mountain view. All the budding twitchers looked north, some checking the direction with their compasses. None of the usual “murder of crows” appeared. The chickadees were scared away from the bird feeders with the commotion. Then it happened.
“The white head one! It’s an eagle. It’s an eagle! Look!”
“A bald eagle. I’ve seen one before.”
“I’ve never see one but I know they are alive”.
“Look the seagulls are chasing him.”
“He’s circling. It means something!”
And then the second bald eagle appeared. More euphoria from the group. One little girl with saucer eyes, runs up to me with the laminated Pocket Naturalist Guide shrieking, “But where? Where? Where is it?”
I paused to help her find the birds of prey section. My scanning finger hit the Bald Eagle. She looked down. Looked up. Looked down and looked up again. And what did those eagles do? They defied logic and flew closer to the noisy kids in the garden. Perhaps they knew, they were the superstars of our bird watching venture.
“It’s a miracle,” gasped my wide eyed twitcher, still clutching the British Columbia Birds – A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar Species (2017 Waterford Press Inc.).
These are the pinnacle moments every educator strives to experience with their students. At these times, the joy of the learner is paralleled by that of the educator. It is miraculous and defines why teachers love to teach.
This blog post is intended for families in the school community to help get students prepared for the rainy season.
I understand that in the far north, the Inuit people have many words for snow and ice. Each word indicates an overt or sometimes subtle difference in the snow and ice. It could reflect the conditions or qualities within the ice and snow. As a Vancouverite, we see snow as fluffy which translates into not good for snowballs but very pretty. There is “perfect snowball” weather which translates into good for building snow people, forts and snowballs. Then there is wet snow which is horrific for driving in and is generally a wet, soggy mess. There is slippy ice we can see and black ice that forms a slick surface and is hazardous on foot and in the car. Our vocabulary around ice and snow is pretty basic.
Vancouver is an amazing place to live and is a popular tourist destination because of the oceans, the rivers, the lakes, the mountains and the green. Basically it is amazing because of the water. It provides an astounding range of things to do and a diversity of plants and animals in our own backyards. It is a place that beckons us to “Get Outside”. The reality is this amazing city exists because we live in a temperate rainforest. The temperature remains mild throughout most of the year. We don’t have snow and ice very often so we don’t really see the nuanced differences. What we know is rain. Throughout the year, it sprinkles, floats down water, drizzles, mists, showers, rains, rains cats and dogs, pours, and sleets. I challenge you to add to the list of words and expressions to describe our plentiful precipitation.
The question that always comes up is what to do when it rains. One option is to just stay inside. I must admit, I love a rainy day when I can curl up with a good book and a pot of tea. However this is just not a feasible everyday option. Life goes on, even on a rainy day. We have places to go and a body that requires activity to be healthy. I believe there are three understandings to be ready for the rain.
Number 1: Wardrobe MattersIf you are warm and dry, you are ready for anything.
The standards include:
A waterproof coat, preferably with a hood.This allows maximum flexibility to do stuff.
Boots.There will be puddles.
An umbrella.I have purchased many and have left them all over the city. I worked at Lost Property for Metro Transit when I was in university and there were hundreds of umbrellas of every size and colour left on busses. Guess what the most common colour was abandoned in the Lost Property Department?
Number 2: Attitude Matters Regardless of how miserably you complain, it will rain.
If you choose to be miserable because it is raining, you are committing yourself to a lot of bad days. When you frown at the world, it frowns back. Smile and make a rainy day plan.
Number 3: Observe Rainy Day Life Life in the rain is different. Not better or worse, just different.
Just after my daughter’s 6th birthday, we went traveling in Italy. A torrential downpour hit one evening in Venice. People ran for cover. Our family was the only one strolling down the street and delighted with the break from the perpetual heat. My daughter looked up at me and said “Oh, Mommy. It smells like home.”
It did. And it was glorious!
Perspective is everything. Expect rain. When it comes, dress appropriately and venture outdoors. Adapt your activities to accommodate the changes. Running on wet concrete can be a problem. Find another option. Going for a walk under a big umbrella is a good option. Open your eyes and look for changes. One of the first songs I learned in kindergarten at Queen Mary Elementary School from Mrs. Hicks was “Robin in the Rain.” There is a reason there is a song about it. Look how the plants and animals respond with joy to the rain. Close your eyes and take a big breath and try to describe it. Look up and notice how the clouds change.
Expect that almost every day will be an outdoor day. And smile about it 🙂
I am on the Steering Committee of a group called Wild About Vancouver, brainchild of our fearless leader, Dr. Hart Banack, UBC. This is a particularly good opportunity because I get together with people who experience the concept of #GetOutdoors on so many different levels. Our conversation started with a goal of organizing an outdoor festival to get people of all ages out as participants and stewards of our amazing city, Vancouver, British Columbia. Yes, Canada for those of you familiar with another Vancouver, south of our border. Vancouver in itself provides many opportunities for outdoor activity and is widely known for the active lifestyle of it’s residents. The outdoors provides many possibilities to enhance mental health, physical well-being, environment awareness and action, as well as curricular instruction.
I am writing this blog on the deck of my father’s cabin in the Eastern Sierras at the doorstep of Yosemite. Just like my first visit at 9 years old and ever after, I am awake before anyone else. This was one of my favorite places to be when I was a little girl on visits with my older sister down south to see my father, step-mother, and later younger siblings. I could get up and out. No burglar alarm to be dis-armed. There were discoveries to be made and other early risers in the world. And I had energy to expend. Lots and lots of energy. Cabin life allowed for that to be a natural part of life. We hiked beyond the waterfall. Rowed. Played “Kick the Can” endlessly with the other cabin kids. Tried to steer the motor boat clear of the dangers of pipes hidden in reeds, sand bars and trees in the lake and on the “jungle cruise” aka stream. Fishing was a challenge for me unless we were casting and then reeling those rainbow trout in. I was a high activity kid. As an educator and a Mom, I had a personally tested strategy of using the outdoors as a way to increase focus in the classroom and to get kids to sleep at night.
I carried the habit of running, biking, hiking, and physically challenging myself into adulthood. I learned as an adult that no one actually cared how you did at something. Sometimes just trying was a victory. I did my first Terry Fox 10 km Run for Cancer Research at the urging of my husband. I believed passionately in the cause. I watched Terry run on the nightly news and my Mom had already suffered her first bout of breast cancer. I hit the 9 km mark and thought I was going to have to stop when a volunteer on the sideline yelled “good form”. That carried me to the finish line with renewed energy, through many Sun Runs, My First and only Triathlon at Cultus Lake, and getting back to running after pregnancies and injuries. Experiences skiing during my high school years, made learning to snowboard achievable. Familiarity on my bike made the bike trip through the Prince Edward Island a glorious adventure. A willingness to try some new physical challenge frequently ended with an increased sense of pride. When that didn’t happen, it resulted in a good story, frequently filled with laughter.
When I graduated from the University of British Columbia, it was the 80’s and very difficult to get a teaching job in Vancouver. I did another year at UBC to get a diploma in English Education while continuing to worked in a daycare / out of school care centre. My quest “to teach” was infused with my supervision responsibilities. I got my Class 4 driver’s license and we took those pre-schoolers all over the lower mainland of Vancouver to explore. School aged kids were welcomed to Sparetime Fun Centre after school and organized into clubs. We went outside to collect materials for arts and crafts. We ran. We danced. We played. We learned. By the time I got a full-time job at 22, learning through play indoors and outdoors was a well-established part of my understanding of how you establish rapport and create bridges between experience and curriculum.
I did my mandatory “out of town” practicum in Abbotsford, British Columbia, because I could stay for free with my paternal grand-parents. When I had my son, I wanted to be closer to home and started working in Coquitlam, where we had purchased our first home. When our youngest daughter went off to Queen’s University, my husband and I promptly moved back to Vancouver where I grew up and both of us lived, prior to kids. The place I was teaching, determined how I went about teaching the curriculum. In Abbotsford, background experience of students included experiences with gardens, cows, berry picking, farms and the ever-present smell of manure from spring to fall. In Coquitlam, salmon spawning in streams, raccoons in garbage, bear awareness when hiking or running in the park, and deer wandering on roads was common place. In Vancouver, walking and biking as a preferred mode of transportation, many local mountains for skiing and snowboarding, beaches, seagulls, crows and ethnic cuisine permeates life. This awareness of place has increasingly become part of education as we have reflected on how we incorporate understandings that are implicit in the Indigenous cultures that were present long before Canada emerged as a country.
The location of the school in British Columbia impacts how many Indigenous students attend. This sometimes provides a block for staffs trying to authentically incorporate Indigenous teachings into the curriculum. However, the sense of place provides an entry point for all students to gain insight into Indigenous ways of knowing. Examining how the place we live impacts our experiences, lends itself to going outdoors and considering our present and historical context. Many things in life cannot be anticipated or guaranteed with confidence. If you live in Vancouver, I can guarantee that it will rain and I can even tell you what that smells like. As a 6-year-old in Venice, my daughter looked up at me and smiled and said “It smells like home, Mummy”, when it started to rain. These understandings over time are the things we can learn from the stories from our local Indigenous people. Medicine Wheel teachings that have been incorporated into many Indigenous cultures have much to teach about how we make decisions, resolve conflict and achieve mental health.
My mother was in the hospital awaiting a procedure when I was called into the room to calm her down.
My response, “Breathe, Mum…No. Not like that. Into your abdomen… You know…Yoga, breathing. No. Not like that.”
My mother’s exasperated response: “You mean I’ve been breathing wrong my whole life?”
The poor nurses came running when we both burst out in uncontrollable laughter with tears running down our faces. They thought they had lost us both. However, there is a reason that the Japanese have taken the world by storm with “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” since the 1980’s, yoga practices have become common place for people of all religions, and Indigenous teachings to improve physical and mental health are being considered. They teach contemplative practices and breathing that is very much centred on experience in nature. As a special education teacher and school principal, much of my work has been teaching students how to self-calm BEFORE problem solving. The first step is always to slow down breathing and learn what strategies work for you. My first go to strategy is physical activity but all of my students can tell you that a pot of Earl Grey tea works wonders for me. The trick is to have more than one strategy that works for you.
We have many amazing educators on the Wild About Vancouver Steering Committee. Although I have many years of experience in education from kindergarten to the university level, as a classroom teacher, administrator and university instructor, I am constantly learning from our committee members who come with varied experiences and approaches to how they get children to pay attention to the nature around them. Although I can’t prioritize what is most important about experiences outdoors, I strongly believe it is our success in getting children to pay attention that has the most significant impact on teaching curriculum. When we closely consider something, we come up with the best questions. The best questions result in the deepest learning and meaningful discovery. Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.
Wild About Vancouver Committee members have all come together because we love Vancouver and want to fully engage people of all ages outdoors in all our city that has so much to offer. What we believe is most important varies with who you are talking to on the Steering Committee or what participant. Our ideas and suggestions are very contextual in that we are sharing what we know as Vancouverites. We have a one week long Wild About Vancouver Festival every year with a grand WAV event in the city. However, the learning and the application of this learning is relevant in any context. I have learned so much from participating in twitter chats and blogs originating in England and Germany. I have also taken from Reggio Emilia early education teachings with roots in Italy by doing lots of reading and visiting the Opal School in Portland, Oregon. And I’m pondering Wild About Vancouver at my Silver Lake playground in the East Sierras on the California – Nevada border. This model of celebration of outdoor activity takes place in many cities. The Wild About Vancouver model takes it one step further by incorporating a celebration of the outdoors with a striving to deepen the learning we take from nature in all aspects of our lives.
Please include us in your you tweets about Outdoor learning @WildAboutVan and tag us with #getoutdoors and #outdoorlearning in all social media posts. For you Vancouverites, we are always looking for participants and Steering Committee members if you are so inclined. Check us out at https://www.wildaboutvancouver.com/
When I was eight years old, I got my first dog. My sister had gone down to California to live with my father and I was very lost and all alone. A family friend convinced my mother that the answer was a puppy. Scamper was a little, black, curly haired cock-a-poo. She was an amazing playmate and helped me rediscover joy in my life.
Joy came to Scamper particularly easily. One of her greatest joys was in late spring when my mother planted rows of yellow marigold flowers and bright red salvias. Scamper would promptly get to work biting off the marigold flowers. She was not a particularly well trained little dog. She would throw the flowers in the air. Catch them. Run in circles with them in her mouth. Roll in them. And finally she would eat them. We were left with long rows of green marigold plants with no flowers. My mother did not find any joy in this. My dog could not contain her joy. We all find our moments of joy in different ways.
The big joys come from the relationships that develop with the people who are there for us over the long haul. The people that let us know that we matter and that we are special. We don’t even need to see these people frequently. These are the kindred spirits that help to sustain us through the hard times and celebrate the good times. Then there are the people who we cross paths with and we develop relationships that are situational. They are fun and filled with laughter and open us to other ways of being and doing. Often as the context shifts , the relationships fade into the background. They are fun while then last.
As the complexity of life and the demands of work and home increase, joy can get lost. People are not always kind and do not always give you the benefit of the doubt or struggle to find joy themselves. Demands can feel insurmountable in a 24 hour period.
For me, the answer is to go on a deliberate quest to find joy on a daily basis. The beautiful thing about working in a school is that it is filled with kids. Joy is always close at hand. Stories. Smiles. Questions. Explanations. Pondering. Witnessing joy in accomplishments.
I ran into a colleague not too long ago. She said “Yeah, I was thinking about your joy thing. I tried it. I like it. It actually works.” I love being known for my “joy thing”. I am looking forward to summer joy. In summer, I don’t have to go looking for joy. It finds me. Beaches. Books. Lakes. Laughter. Friends. Family. Biking. Golf. I’ve even discovered that marigolds are actually edible and will definitely order a salad with marigold flowers in it. Who knew, Scamper was on to something! The things you can learn from your dog! Joy in eating marigolds.
There is no teacher like direct experience to engage the head and heart in the process of learning. Data about students becoming less curious as they move through the school system, is heart-breaking. It begs the question – Why? When my children were preschoolers, the day revolved around playing in the backyard, discovering new backyards of playmates and going to the park. On sunny days they were dressed in clothing to protect sensitive skin and exposed bits were slathered with sunscreen. Other days included sweaters or “muddy buddies” or rubber boots or snowsuits. Bottom line, those preschoolers were going outside for an adventure filled with fresh air and exercise and access to the wonders of the natural world around them. Awe, curiosity, delight and question upon question were the standard of the day.
Richard Louv (2006) raised the alarm about our students who are increasingly demonstrating a “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods. The nature deficit is something being experienced on a much bigger scale. Baby boomers are perhaps the last generation to be pushed out the door to “Go play outside and be home by dinner”. Accessible hand-held technology, less green space and a heightened sense of fear fed by the media, keeps adults as well as children inside with repercussions for engagement with nature, physical fitness and mental health. Some doctors are writing park prescriptions to assist patients in dealing with depression, high blood pressure and stress. Groups like Wild About Vancouver, have initiatives to encourage people of all ages to get outside and get active. The Japanese started a movement called “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” in the 1980’s to improve physical and mental health. It has taken the world by storm. Regular “forest bathing” opportunities were scheduled in Vancouver’s 400 hectare rainforest, Stanley Park, this summer and many other forested parks with around the world because going outdoors, looking, listening and breathing needs to be taught.
Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it. The first time I saw a “Bear in the Area” sign in our local park when we moved to Coquitlam a suburb of Vancouver, I did the research to find out what I needed to know. I went online, got books to share with my family, and talked to neighbours and friends and even the police officer sitting doing his notes in the parking lot. Sailing, biking, skiing, snowboarding and hiking, all come with required background knowledge and a skill set to keep yourself safe. Every time we try something new, we learn.
The Child and Nature Alliance is astute in pointing out that the best way to get children outside, is to go with them. My husband and I now have adult children. However since their pre-school years, some of our best memories and best laughs are beach, park, biking and ski/snowboard adventures or the times just after, like reading Harry Potter aloud with hot chocolate by a fire. Of course, developing relationship during outdoor activities necessitates putting the phone away and giving your family and friends your undivided attention.
Experience – first hand knowledge – experiential learning, multi-sensory opportunities, unstructured times, emotional connection
“American kids devote more than seven hours daily to staring at screens, replacing reality with virtual alternatives” (Sampson, 2015, p.5). As with the advent of any technology, humans benefit from the advanced development of their prefrontal cortex, and the thinking skills to decide how best to utilize the technology. I am a huge fan of using phones, iPads and computers as tools to access information and communicate learning to a wider audience. When I’m outdoors, I use the camera on my cell phone and my iPad to focus my attention and capture things I find interesting or beautiful or memorable or that I want to explore more later. However just as I was instructed to turn off the television and go play outside as a little girl, parents and educators need to assume responsibility for the amount of screen time they allow for the children in their care to growth and lead healthy lives.
Germany is well-known developing a love of the outdoors. I remember hiking with my family in Schliersee. We were so proud of our stellar progress upwards on our hike, when we rounded the corner and not only had someone been there, but they had installed a bench. Britain is also well known for a population that engages outdoors. The British outdoor kindergarten movement is growing. Italy is known for the Reggio Emilio discovery based school movement. There is widespread recognition that children benefit from learning outdoors in the places they know well. It is outdoors that they can access the materials, solve problems and feed the curiosity that form the basis for important learning. This is the reality of place based learning.
The outdoor classroom does not close because it’s raining. I have recently adopted the slogan I learned from Scott D. Sampson’s book, How To Raise a Wild Child (2015): “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” The rain in Vancouver does present different opportunities for learning. while extending our understanding and appreciation what is is to live in a temperate rainforest. When my daughter was 6 years old, we were travelling in Venice. The rain started to fall and everyone ran for shelter. Our family was quite delighted with the break from the heat and we splashed puddles down the centre of the street. My little Vancouverite looked up at me, smiled and said “Oh, Mommy. It smells like home.” This is what the poet W.D. Auden (1947) must have been referring to when he coined the word “topophilia” which translates to a “love of place” to describe the bonds people form with the places where they live. When you care about the place you live, both your heart and mind are open to the lessons they provide. This necessitates outside experiences.
Mentoring – side by side exploration, mentors listen more than they talk, observe closely, inspire curiosity, “pull” stories from their mentees by asking questions that push the limits of awareness and knowledge
I have been fortunate to be a teacher in British Columbia. Teaching in Abbotsford meant the farm was in close proximity to learn about mammals, and the smell of manure in the air impacted learning about food systems. In Coquitlam, spawning salmon at the end of a playground provided input for learning about life cycles and perseverance. My current school is located in the Pacific Spirit Park. Teachers are able to take students into the forest to discover more about the “wood wide web” and The Hidden Life of Trees, to the beaver dam to learn about our history and science, and down the beach to investigate yet another habitat. My previous school was not surrounded by untouched wilderness, but it was there that we were able to follow the newly released butterflies to discover one of the best butterfly gardens I have ever seen cultivated by a local resident with a green thumb. The best weather forecasters were the students who had learned to go outside and use all of their senses to make observations. Those students had well-developed background knowledge about clouds and could tell you about the best weather APPS. In all of these school contexts, what makes the biggest difference to student learning is the skillful mentoring of educators. The questions they ask, and the student questions they reflect back to the group, helps students to hone their observation skills and risk asking questions about the things that matter to them personally. The innovators who have mirrored nature in their products have spent time outside studying, observing, hypothesizing and experimenting.
3. Understanding — ponder and learn about big understandings before mastery of discrete pieces of factual knowledge
When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who closed the curtains when anything particularly interesting was happening outside. It could have been a first snowfall, a heavy downpour or the clouds dropping down to make the mountains nearly invisible. Her intention was to eliminate distraction. She was a conscientious teacher who was committed to our learning. It was not an effective strategy for me. All of my attention was directed to what was happening outside and why. My imagination took me far away from the lessons of the day. I would have a story worked out by the time recess and anxiously focused on the grand opening of the curtains.
Scott Sampson talks about using the power of learning from Indigenous culture that is grounded in nature and creation stories told from the perspective of animals, plants and landforms. He uses the term “Going Coyote” to reference using “the trickster coyote of Indigenous lore (creator with magical powers as a transformer, shape shifter, hiding in plain sight) to inspire caring and empathy for nature. “The Coyote Club” at our school is grounded in active outdoor learning experiences that provide a model for respecting self, others and the environment. It is embraced indoors and outdoors on a continuous basis.
By pre-school age, students have developed inquisitive minds and a skill set to find answers. Children don’t need to be taught to ask questions. They need to know that their questions matter. They need to know that engaging in the world around them is what good learners do. We want our children to continue to be inquisitive and identify the possibilities, to make observations, connection and ask new questions when they are outdoors as well as indoors at school. Our challenge as educators is to redefine ways to feed the inquisitiveness of children coming into school while we broaden their opportunities to access information, to work collaboratively and to hone skills to find answers. The outdoors provides not only an opportunity for physical activity but an opportunity for incredible cross curricular learning and mental health. This is a place to observe and ask questions and learn through play. To make connections with book learning. To use technology to document and access new knowledge. It is a place to be in awe and celebrate curiosity.
For ideas to engage children in nature activities, online information and lesson plans, please see:
Last week was the annual Grade 6 Camp Elphinstone experience. For students on the South Slope of Vancouver, it is a game changer. Most of the children come to camp and experience a plethora of “Firsts”. This year some of those “firsts” included:
taking a ferry
staying in a cabin with friends
sighting a baby bear
watching a river otter poop
catching a fish
swimming in the ocean
attempting to hit the bell at the top of the climbing wall
Meal time and Campfire ritual of songs and chants and debates
counting the seconds between the forked lightning and thunder
The team building opportunity presented by the camp experience creates a perfect opportunity to develop the essentials of social and emotional learning. This results in a sense of belonging and a wonderful tone going into their final Grade 7 year of elementary school for Tecumseh students. The YMCA has years of providing high quality programming for young people and has all of the elements of the camp experience down to perfection. The camp rituals of family style food service and traditional campfire songs and activities challenge students to take risks, engage in experiential learning and explore their identity. The young counsellors from Canada, New Zealand and Australia are able to keep up with the pace of energetic Grade 6 students and facilitate safe and memorable learning experiences. Our Junior counsellors from David Thompson Secondary and sponsor teachers came together to ensure the best experience possible for our campers.
If you talk to our students, they will tell you they are on a holiday from school. In actual fact, they have simply entered the outdoor classroom to engage in experiential learning masked as fun. The learning is not in just one experience but many experiences in nature and with peers over time. If you have the time and inclination, you may want to open up the redesigned curriculum in British Columbia-Grade 6. The three-day camp experience touched on many big ideas, all of the core competencies and a meaty chunk of curriculum. The social emotional learning is pervasive throughout all of the activities and experiences and indigenous ways of knowing are infused throughout the experience.
Meal time and camp fire included action songs, chants, listening games and debates for students to hone their powers of persuasion. Shelter building required teamwork to come up with a plan to build a shelter from materials on the forest floor that could withstand both the earthquake and water test. Canoeing, kayaking, hiking, the climbing wall and archery challenged students to take risks, learn a new skill and took the development of flexibility, strength and endurance to new levels. The range of games such Running Pictionary, Capture the Flag, Camouflage tag and Wink, Wink, Murder necessitate safety rules, game rules, social interaction, spatial awareness and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
Upon reflection, the camp experience opens a myriad of possibilities for more intentional curriculum learning. I am not proposing duo-tangs filled with photocopied worksheets. I am proposing that we consider the aspects of curriculum that can be incorporated into the camp experience. Place based Aboriginal perspectives and ways of knowing as outlined in the First People’s Principles of Learning could be clearly articulated. The opportunity to directly teach social emotional skills to allow students to develop coping skills for dealing with stress and for dealing with conflict effectively are present throughout the daily schedule. The consideration of opportunities for direct instruction in mindfulness by tapping into nature and social interaction are plentiful. It means people with background knowledge about the solar system, constellations, local flora, fauna and primary resources become invaluable. Materials such as compasses, Write in the Rain notebooks and field handbooks may need to be purchased. The camp experience may be re-imagined, not as an “extra” but as a vital pathway to develop and incorporate big ideas, core competencies and curriculum knowledge for our students in a meaningful way.
Investigating Our Practice Conference in the Faculty of Education on Saturday, May 14th. The day was filled with poster presentations, talks and interactive experiences by undergraduates, grad students, faculty and alumni. It was particularly exciting to see the level of engagement of the student giving up their very sunny Vancouver Saturday to consider a range of ideas and questions. For those of you who are not Vancouverites, when the sun comes out in full glory, we go outside – never quite certain how long it will be around.
I had the pleasure of presenting The Outdoor Classroom: Taking learning and purposeful play outside, rain or shine with Claire Rushton, Alli Tufaro and Ali Nasato. We were pulled together by a common interest in the opportunity provided by outdoor learning. This one interest was able to pull together so many elements that have been embraced as key ideas in the Redesigned Curriculum in British Columbia, such as:
The social emotional benefits of engaging with nature
The natural way in which we can engage students in practicing and understanding the First Nations Principles of Learning, including:
patience and time required for learning
exploring one’s identity
everyone and everything has a story
there are consequences to our actions
Ways to engage students in cross curricular learning opportunities
Connecting classroom lessons to the larger world
Using resources in the classroom to answer our questions about observations made outdoors
Reporting back about the things we care about to authentic audiences
Of course, the list goes on. Another interesting aspect of our collaborative group was the power of inquiry in developing our professional practice as educators throughout different stages of our careers. Both student teachers have found a way to focus their professional learning throughout the practicum experience. Claire Rushton, as the coordinator of the Social Emotional Learning cohort has used the outdoors to bring Richard Louv’s work to life and introduce the power of “nature … as a healing balm for the emotional hardships in a child’s life..” by integrating the experiences in nature to frame discussions of social – emotional learning. I have engaged in a personal inquiry of how to use iPad APPS (photos, Drawing Pad, Book Creator, Twitter) as a way to access information, document and share outdoor learning. I’ve also been able to support the staff I interact with on a regular basis in their own inquiries. Inquiry, as framed by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in Spirals of Inquiry, has provided a framework for beginning teachers as well as a school administrator and university instructor. The learning has fuelled more questions and future inquiries.
I very much hope our collaboration continues…perhaps after the frenetic pace of the end of practicum, final observations and reports and end of year demands and celebrations!
Earth Day has become an established part of the school calendar. Every school district and most schools focuses on taking care of the environment in one capacity or another. In some cases, the focus remains on garbage pickup and recycling. In some cases, it extends to gardening efforts, going outside for Physical Education and composting. I believe that our real task as educators is to nurture an appreciation of the outdoors to prevent the disconnect with nature that many of our students are experiencing, particularly in urban contexts.
Most children naturally experience the physical benefit from outdoor activity. Some children readily participate in community building experiences with peers. All children benefit from scaffolded experiences to develop their curiosity, creativity, problem solving and mindfulness during outdoor learning experiences. For educators with diverse background experiences outdoors, teachable moments and connections to curriculum unfold seamlessly. At our school, the Grade 6 YMCA Camp Elphinstone experience, has been an important way of broadening student perspective of outdoor learning opportunities available to them. The expansion of recycling and organics in all VSB schools, the BC Fresh Fruit and Veggies program, the B.C. Milk Program for K-Gr2 students, bringing the cows to the school and exploration of food sources have all helped students to make connections between nature and their lives.
One challenges is that educators in urban contexts do not always have the background experiences to use the outdoor classroom as a basis for developing cross curricular competencies on a daily basis. As school communities, we need to tease out the resources that are readily available to us. Dr. Hartley Banack ,of Wild About Vancouver, has been instrumental in helping us to engage our students in meaningful learning experiences. Spearheading the Wild About Vancouver Festival has been a labour of love to broaden the accessibility of outdoor learning possibilities to urban dwellers in Vancouver. With the stellar effort of his team, Wild About Vancouver was able to coordinate 65 events, hosted by 48 organizations. Students at Tecumseh Main and Tecumseh Annex experienced nature through games, shelter building and developing their observation skills during the festival. Hopefully this is an event that only continues to grow and increase our personal health, community building, mindfulness and experiential learning throughout the year.
Dr. Banack is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy in the Faculty of Education at UBC. He works tirelessly with students at U.B.C. to develop the skill set to engage students in experiential learning outdoors. Alison Nasato and Alli Tufaro are two students in the Social and Emotional Learning cohort at UBC with Professor Claire Rushton. Their coursework with Dr. Banack and Claire Rushton has been inspirational. They have been engaged in inquiry projects exploring curricular integrations of outdoor learning within a SEL framework during their practicum experiences in Surrey, B.C. This type of learning has the potential to impact how we engage students as the redesigned curriculum unfolds in British Columbia.
The Outdoor Einsteins has been an offering at Tecumseh Elementary for all three of terms of after school programming by the David Thompson Community School Team. CST School coordinator, Tara Perkins, has worked hard with student program facilitators from David Thompson Secondary School and volunteers to implement the program. A grant from ReadingBC (BC Council of International Literacy Association) allowed her to develop the literacy aspects of the program. A eureka moment for many of our students and parents has been that you can even have fun outside, even when it’s raining. Appropriate clothing, hot chocolate, student made shelters, giant umbrellas, Write in the Rain books and inspired activities have kept kids excited about participating and lining up to register each term.
Another source of inspiration I recently happened upon on Twitter in the 30X30 challenge sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation. The goal is 30 minutes outside for 30 days in May. What a fun way to engage our school communities! Follow us @Tecumseh39 to see what we’re up to in our school community. Let us know if you have other ideas on ways to learn in the outdoor classroom.