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Learning to connect children with nature (31 photos)

Child and Nature Alliance of Canada's Forest School Canada trains 22 educators

On Aug. 3 through 7, 2021, Algoma Forest and Nature School (AFNS) played host to the Child Nature Alliance of Canada (CNAC) for their Child and Nature Practitioners' course at their site on St. Joseph Island.

Courses such as this one are generally offered across the country each year and culminate in certification of each practitioner by Forest and Nature School Canada. 

This particular practitioners' course was delivered in modules where the participants spent five hands-on days together outside in addition to the complimenting online hours which consist of approximately nine months time.

In total there were 22 participants some of whom were educators from across the public and private sectors looking to enhance their knowledge base in order to implement these new skills in their classrooms, early childhood educators, a Guardian Project Manager from Wahkohtowin in addition to a couple of parents interested in starting their own Forest and Nature Schools; two facilitators; two shadow facilitators - facilitators in training; two Indigenous Knowledge Keepers - Frank Belleau of Garden River First Nation and Mona Jones also of Garden River First Nation; as well as host Becky Hodgson, founder, owner, director, outdoor educator of AFNS.

Participants of this course were adults learning to play and connect with nature and the land in order to engage the children they will encourage and build relationships with along their journey.

Indigenous guest speakers Frank Belleau and Mona Jones shared their heart truths and perspectives about anti-racism and truth and reconciliation to help participants move forward.

In addition to book learning, activities of the week also included: regular sit spots - finding a favourite spot in nature to visit regularly, cultivate awareness, study patterns of plants, birds, trees and animals which supports mindfulness, builds routine and increases focus; creating fire with various fuels and ignitions sources; knot tying and their uses; hand tools and how to work with them as well as their uses; as well as some special child guests who were happy to show them how to play in addition to many other land-related activities.

The purpose of Child and Nature Canada is to try to connect children and families in Canada to nature and the outdoors in the settings where they live, work, learn and play thereby enhancing their health and well-being.

By providing land-based learning programs for children under the direction of Forest School Canada and the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, Forest and Nature School programs provide children opportunities to build on-going relationships with the land, to dedicated educators, to one another, and to themselves through regular and repeated access to the same natural space, as well as emergent, experimental, inquiry-based, play-based, and place-based learning.

With a previous background in natural resources and education, it seemed like a natural fit for Hodgson to open the invisible doors to her first Forest and Nature School in 2018 on the land known as Anipich (land of the hardwoods) in Ojibwe, on the traditional and ancestral lands of the Anishnaabe people of the Robinson-Huron Treaty of 1850.

"I first learned about the concept of Forest and Nature School while at a COEO (Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario) conference in September 2013. In early 2016, I was reintroduced to Forest School Canada when I saw an advertisement on Facebook for a Forest and Nature School (FNS) course being held in Sussex, N.B. in August 2016. As we have family in that area, I registered and participated in the course. After my eyes were opened during the course as to how education can look, I was committed to making it happen for our own children to benefit from. As my background is in both the natural resources sector as well as the education sector. I was hired with the ADSB as a teacher in 2008, it was a natural path for me to take. We began offering our first forest and nature school program in September 2018 on our 95-acre property on St. Joseph Island."

AFNS operates out of two locations throughout the year. Their main site is housed on St. Joseph Island and a second site near Sault Ste. Marie is generally rented each year. This past year that additional site has been at Bell's Point Campground. 

They offer seasonal programs for children ages three-12 during spring, winter and fall sessions in addition to March Break Sugar Moon Camp and Summer Camps. In the past, there have been some ADSB kindergarten class field trips but understandably there have been none since 2019.

Currently, Hodgson is in discussions with other educational personnel about setting up weekly class visits but there is nothing confirmed or on paper yet. "A fair number of our regular participants are enrolled in public school, but instead of spending five days per week inside the four walls, they come to learn hands-on at our programs once or twice per week."

"Given all the changes to education brought on by COVID, more and more parents are realizing they have options when it comes to their children's education." 

"My hope is that these changes cause enough parents to question the current education narrative and cause an 'education revolution' that stirs up the current public education system, forcing the Ontario government to catch up with what the Forest and Nature School movement, through private schools like ours has broken ground within terms of nature connection, outdoor play and learning."

The magic of Forest and Nature School speaks for itself. Its emergent curriculum, play-based nature and flexible schedule make it unique.

"Children have complete choice in how they want to spend their time in the session. For some that might mean small world play – building fairy houses, for others – perhaps reading a book in a hammock. For our 'movers and shakers' that might look like climbing trees or building forts, and for those who like to use small muscles, that might mean building a fire, using hand tools or learning to whittle with a knife – with direct supervision. Our programs give children the opportunity to experience the childhood we as grown-ups had; uninterrupted time in nature to develop a relationship with the natural world. "

Although people have been learning from the land for generations - too many to count – formalized outdoor schooling is relatively new and generally took the form of summer camps, scouting, nature therapy programs etc and now forest and nature schools. 

The forest and nature schools concept originated around the middle of the 20th century where each one is unique and diverse much like the landscape, students and teachers themselves. 

Records show the first known forest school was started in Denmark in 1952 for young children as an unofficial form of daycare due to a clear lack of available indoor space for early childhood education centres. These schools rapidly began popping up through the 1950s all over Europe and have grown worldwide to what they are today.

Not only are forest and nature schools an integral part of early childhood learning but they play an important role in student and educator well-being. In post-pandemic times they are being studied and recommended as a viable safe space to learn in the outdoors.

"Forest and Nature School is very much an interest-based, child-led program. We like to say that the land is the teacher, and the outdoor educators – also known as forest and nature school practitioners are the 'guides on the side'. Our programs are emergent in nature, play-based, inquiry-based. We like to pose 'I wonder...' questions and see where they lead our curiosity, experimental in nature. We want children to learn by doing and being hands-on, not just to watch or hear.  Too often in our fast-paced, technology-driven world, children's lives are so prescribed and directed by adults, that we are finding some children require a period of 'unlearning' just to settle into their own self-directed play – and through play...learning." 

Besides their biggest tool - word of mouth Hodgson leaves advertising her school mainly to her social media accounts:  Facebook and Instagram (@algomaforestandnatureschool) as well as her website where you can find more information.

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About the Author: Violet Aubertin

Violet Aubertin is a photograher and writer with an interest in Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma's great outdoors
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