“Teaching children about the natural world should be treated as one of the most important events in their lives.” ~ Thomas Berry
As we prepare for children’s return to school in the fall, there is much concern – from children, parents, educators, health professionals and politicians, particularly around social distancing in classrooms that might lack the space needed to provide that. We all are seeking creative solutions to the problem of how to protect everyone from, and to minimize the spread of COVID-19 once schools re-open their doors. Recently I saw a TVO article about how Toronto opened its first forest school in the early 1900’s in response to the threat of tuberculosis, a reminder of how educators have addressed such situations in the past. Today, even under normal circumstances children who do not spend adequate time outdoors might experience what Richard Louv has described as nature deficit disorder. It seems that the simplest remedy is to provide outdoor education and quality time spent in nature. Clearly, many arguments can be made for increasing the time that children spend outdoors. For this blog post I have interviewed Tracey Pegg, a colleague who has received specialized Forest School training, and invited her to share her thoughts on outdoor learning. I hope this interview will inspire educators as they decide how to run their classrooms and develop their curriculum, not just in the fall, but in the future.
Tell me a little bit about your work. I’ve been lucky enough to work at Huron Playschool Co-operative for the last ten years. Playschool recently celebrated it’s 50th anniversary as a parent co-operative licensed childcare program. Until COVID-19 changed our world, parents worked as teaching assistants in the nursery school program. They remain actively involved in all aspects of Playschool’s management and operation. What have I most enjoyed there? It is enormously rewarding to work with parent educators who are so personally and deeply committed to providing the best program for all of the children at Playschool. There are many families and parents who work hard to make a difference. I have worked in childcare for about 20 years, starting my career at a University of Toronto childcare centre, then working as a program supervisor in Victoria B.C. before I returned to Toronto and started working at Playschool.
You have long had a passion for outdoor education. What would you say was the source of your inspiration? Why is the study and exploration of nature so meaningful for you? I have always enjoyed camping and spending time outside in natural areas. I spent my high school years in the country, and chose my university based on my ability to spend time outside; I went to Trent University in Peterborough. I have travelled from coast to coast to coast in Canada, camping along the way. I walk daily in my neighbourhood with my dog. I have a deep interest in learning about the natural environment around me. In addition, I have had membership and participation in the Federation of Ontario Nature [a charity that has been protecting wild species and wild spaces through education, conservation and public engagement since 1931] for many years.
When you decided to take a deeper dive into nature study for your own professional development, which program did you choose, and why? Eager to bring this passion for spending time outside more deeply into my childcare programming, several years ago I completed certification in a Forest and Nature School Practitioner program offered by the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada. The program’s philosophy closely aligned with my personal values. Those values that resonate for me with the Child Nature Alliance of Canada are: place and play-based, emergent, child-led, and inquiry driven learning. The words Trust, Relationships and Freedom are the pillars that the Forest and Nature school is founded on. [Additional goals of the Alliance are to engage and support individuals and organizations who are interested in working in nature-based programs, and to promote the Forest and Nature School movement in order to connect children to nature]. I pursued certification as a way of pushing myself to figure out how to do this kind of programming in a child care setting in downtown Toronto. I struggled with imagining a forest program in our downtown Toronto neighbourhood.
What kinds of assignments did you do? How did they deepen your knowledge and/or your beliefs about outdoor education? There is no other program like the one offered by the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, a strong experience-based program. It includes a 5-day intensive in-person course – we were outdoors all day at Point Pelee National Park – and a one-year online series of assignments. The assignments are organized to prepare participants to operate a forest program. Assignments were practical, and tasks needed to be completed to offer a carefully planned and operated outdoor program. Course requirements included many practical exercises, and the enthusiastic support of Playschool parents and children led to my first urban forest program. This was my laboratory for my course assignments. The program’s best practice standard is where I want my program to be. Its philosophy of the teacher as facilitator and participant with the child in learning resonates with the kind of teacher I want to be.
“Direct contact with nature has direct benefits for children’s physical, mental and emotional health. Free play opportunities in natural settings offer possibilities for restoration, and hence, well-being.” ~ Stuart Lester and Martin Maudsley
How has your approach to outdoor education changed as a result of your studies? How have you integrated your learning into your classroom? How have the children at your centre responded to this? We didn’t have an outdoor program at Playschool last year, but COVID-19 has provided a wonderful incentive for me to spend as much time outside as we can. There are many challenges for childcare programs to spend more time outside, especially when your program is located in downtown Toronto without any outdoor space. It is not easy to find a space close enough to the centre that we can all come back to use the bathroom, but far enough away with enough natural materials and space for children to safely play. We have had to be flexible in our use of space – if we go to one spot and others are there, we move. But we have different spaces, and it’s amazing the loose parts that children can find, once they return to a space a few times. Sticks and pinecones are the great loose parts I look for. Sticks are a valuable toy – they can be pets, musical instruments, tools, construction materials, food, hockey sticks, measuring sticks, magic wands, food, cell phones and radios, craft parts…. The rewards of outdoor programs are many. It is easier to meet the needs of a varied group of children outside. Even when your outdoor space is small, the open air and all the space above seems to help everyone self-regulate. Outdoor spaces are great classrooms to learn well-being, belonging, engagement and expression. Teachers don’t need to prepare the spaces as they do classrooms (except to ensure safety and sufficient loose parts in an urban environment). I think that allows me to focus more on moments with children as they circle out from the home base of the teacher.
What are your views on outdoor education in the early years? How might pre-service and in-service ECEs be better supported to bring richer outdoor experiences to the children they teach? This is an ideal time for educators to push themselves to take their programs outside. How can administrators support staff needs for flexible schedules so they can take groups outside? Can administrators provide support when we come back in with 15 muddy and messy children? Childcare and schools are often so closely scheduled that it is impossible for teachers to offer a program that allows for a long block of outdoor time. Teachers need time to find good outdoor spaces, to check them out weekly for safety, to pack for outings. If teachers are supported and encouraged to offer this kind of programming, I am confident many teachers would choose it.
Lastly, not all children/centres can easily access natural areas. What recommendations would you make to teachers wanting to provide children with more opportunities to experience nature? Parks are under-used spaces during the school year. Bathrooms are a huge stumbling block for programs with young children to venture away from their centre. I think it should be a priority to make our parks more accessible spaces for children to play and explore by adding bathrooms. It helps when educators can be engaged with children outside, especially with children who may not have spent much time in natural outdoor areas without play equipment.