Learning Outdoors

By Carrie Froese, Inquire2Empower, reprinted with permission.

Embracing the outdoors as an avenue for learning in not always easy sell when you live in a temperate rainforest. The sun, the sand and the sea are celebrated in Vancouver and our claim to being “the very best” place to live is assumed. Last week I was heading outside with a group of students for DPA- the 30 minutes minimum of daily physical activity at schools in British Columbia. An indignant 8 year Amy, popped her hand in the air and responded with “Ms. Froese, don’t you know it’s cold out there?”

The challenge in some schools is ensuring that students are dressed appropriately for the weather.  Perhaps the bigger challenge is the notion that we need to somehow escape the weather.  How do we help our students to embrace the notion of the outdoor classroom at all times of the year?

Dr. Hart Banack, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC, has been heading up  Wild About Vancouver in an effort to encourage teachers and students to take advantage of the opportunities to participate in outdoor learning.  This year Wild About Vancouver is scheduled for April 16-22, 2016 and will provide dozens of free, outdoor-focused activities.  Last week educators from seven schools came together in Vancouver.  In exchange for agreeing to host a Wild About Vancouver event (big or small), Hart Banack worked with his students at the University of British Columbia to develop plans tailored to each school to support outdoor learning in the school community.  The area was surveyed for parks and other opportunities and activities to incorporate outdoor learning into curriculum using a thematic approach to integrating outdoor education into the “big ideas” of the new curriculum and provincial learning outcomes.  Administrators and teachers from public and private elementary sites were excited to see the plans and share about the things happening at their schools.  We heard about “outdoor Kindergarten” and whole day expeditions to  Jericho Beach Park, rain or shine, where students adopted a square meter to observe changes or made footprints using overhead film to consider the impact of a “step”.

I walked away anxious to share some of the ideas with my staff and Community School Team members.  Tara Perkins, CST Programmer, and John Mullan, CST Coordinator, from the David Thompson Community School Team  have been working with me on ways to include outdoor learning into after school programs at our school.  The student volunteers from David Thompson Secondary worked with Tara to include the “Outdoor Einsteins” in our programming this fall.  I came back excited to discuss ways we could continue the program throughout the winter programming.  The current program is culminating this Friday with students going outside to actually try out the fire starter kits they have made.  This is a learning opportunity often reserved for students participating in the Scouting and Girl Guiding organizations.  And yes, that brings up another aspect of outdoor learning:  What are the risks worth taking?

Throughout my career, I have coached sports, sponsored the ski/snowboard club, taken kids to camp with swimming and canoeing, on biking fieldtrips to Steveston and to the beach.  The reality is that these activities do not provide the same protected environment as the classroom.  However many students do not have these experiences unless they do them at school.  These activities are frequently game changers for our students.  You can see it in kids eyes when there world has just expanded to include a whole new range of options for learning and living.  It brings me right back to that Christmas in Grade 3 when I got the lime green bike with the daisy banana seat and the monkey bar handles.  The world expanded.  I was empowered.  To be a child of the 70’s with a new freedom to explore possibilities 🙂

For Amy, the game changer was going outside and realizing that on that cold, crisp day, the sun was in the eastern part of the sky and the moon was in the western part of the sky and that it wasn’t such a bad idea to go out after all.