Growing up on the North Shore with the mountains in their backyard and the ocean at their doorstep, Capilano University students Janine Barnett and Kristi Sharp learned to love and respect nature at a young age.

Not wanting to leave Vancouver for university, they each enrolled in Capilano’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program and soon found themselves leaning towards a career in education. “I knew I wanted to go into teaching pretty early on,” says Janine. However, it wasn’t until their graduating year that the two women discovered a way to combine their love of the outdoors with their interest in education.

Finding inspiration

The Liberal Studies program at Cap is a multidisciplinary degree program that allows students to customize the program based on their interests. Students complete three tutorials with instructors from various disciplines depending on their research interests. These tutorials together contribute to the creation of a final, graduating project on a research question of the student’s choice.

The first of Janine and Kristi’s tutorials was with geography instructor, Cheryl Schreader. Cheryl introduced the women to forest schools and inspired the subject of their year-end assignment.

Forest schools are outdoor education programs designed to teach children social and technical skills by immersing them in nature. The outdoor setting is thought to encourage exploration and creative learning, while also teaching children about nature itself. Forest schools were popularised in Europe and have since spread across North America.

With Cheryl’s guidance, Janine and Kristi began researching these programs and the effect they have on young learners. They were excited to discover that introducing children to the outdoors at a young age has been shown to be beneficial for their cognitive and physical development. Inspired by this new-found knowledge, Janine and Kristi decided to focus their graduating project on nature-based education. 

Now ready to put their academic learning into practice, they asked Barb Mathieson, an instructor from the Early Childhood Care and Education program, to lead their second tutorial. Barb has been teaching Kindergarten and primary school on the North Shore for many years and happened to be implementing an outdoor education project at Boundary Elementary School in North Vancouver with her former teaching partner, Susan Oucharek, when the students approached her.

The plan was to take Susan’s Kindergarten class into the forest once a week and teach them about nature. The timing was perfect and it was decided that Janine and Kristi would join the project. 

Into the Forest

Remembering their younger selves, Janine and Kristi expected to meet an excited bunch of kids, ready to go outside and play—but what they discovered surprised them. The class was unenthusiastic about their outdoor lessons; one student was even afraid of playing in the forest. “It’s hard to see the next generation of kids be so disinterested in the environment,” says Janine.

However, Barb quickly set the children at ease and made them feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Her classes begin with a welcome song to say hello to the forest and a group garbage pick-up. These introductory activities are easy, inclusive and teach the children to respect nature. Janine and Kristi have been encouraged to see how effective these exercises can be at changing children’s attitudes. “Now everyone is desperate to say hi to the forest,” says Kristi, “there’re no complaints anymore.”

Each week, Barb introduces a new tool and activity for the students to try. Janine and Kristi have watched with delight as this previously disinterested class has become excited about nature and less afraid to try new things. They have used potato peelers to whittle sticks, an electronic magnifying glass to analyze bugs and a mortar and pestle to cook up ‘forest potions.’ Their confidence and ingenuity has also increased. Tree stumps have become boats and fallen logs have been turned into teeter totters.

This kind of creative play is exactly what Barb’s lessons are designed to encourage. The aim is for students to direct class activities according to their interests. “A lot of what we’ve learned about nature-based education is that it’s not about teaching, but facilitating—letting the kids learn on their own,” says Janine.

Learning their own lessons

Barb’s outdoor education project has been a great success. The weekly outings have been so instructive for Janine and Kristi that they decided to continue their involvement even after their tutorial was complete. The women have stayed on as volunteers since January. They also participated in a Fresh Air Learning workshop to pick up additional teaching tips.

Having now experienced firsthand the positive effect forest school programs can have on early childhood development and education, they both plan to incorporate this teaching style into their future curricula. “We want to bring these environmental practices into our own work,” says Janine. Their tutorials with Cheryl Schreader and Barb Mathieson have taught them how they can make a difference while doing what they love.

“It’s important, because children are the next generation that are going to be in charge of the earth. We want to instill in them the values of nature so that they know how to take care of it,” says Kristi.

Submitted by Marketing & Communications, written by Natalie Walters

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