Monique Keiran: Nature schools produce multiple benefits

Nature schools are popping up like mushrooms around here. The preschools and kindergartens immerse kids in local parks and green spaces for half-days and full-days at a time. The kids play outside. They stay outside. They learn about plants and animals, they look at bugs and pond critters, they make friends with trees.

Colwood’s Sangster Elementary program started the trend. Parents have even camped out overnight to register their children in the program.

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Saanich’s preschool at Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary started September fully booked, and takes advantage of nature programs offered by sanctuary education staff. The Cridge Centre also started a nature preschool this year. Kiddie Kapers operates out of Commonwealth Recreation Centre, and Victoria Nature School runs out of Mount Doug park and Gordon Head Recreation Centre.

Programs like these put the kinder into the garten — the child into nature. They capitalize on the benefits of being active and outdoors on kids’ mental, physical and emotional health and development.

The efforts remind me of a former colleague, who began connecting kids to nature way back in the day when environmental education was still seen as a bit woo-woo.

My once-upon-a-time colleague, Jeff, took his new university degree to a high school in Harlem, where he served as a student counselor and advocate.

In the early 1980s, Harlem was forbidden territory. You didn’t dare drive there, and if you had to take the bus through the borough, under no circumstances did you ever step off the bus.

It was no place for a clean-cut Canadian boy.

But the students took Jeff under their wings. They organized teams to escort him between school and the subway station to keep him safe.

And Jeff believed in the kids. He recognized their potential despite the poverty and violence in their lives. He worked with the school, the school board, the borough, students’ families and his own family in Ontario to arrange and pay for a summer field trip for a few of the kids to his family’s cottage in Ontario. (Decades ago, such endeavours were possible.)

For the first time in their lives, the teenagers left Manhattan Island. Some left Harlem for the first time.

Once in the land of lakes and boreal forest, Jeff immersed his charges in the Canadian outdoor summer experience. They started off just becoming familiar with the woods. They went for walks and hikes. They learned to swim, canoe and fish. They picked berries. They roasted hotdogs over campfires, told ghost stories and stared up at the stars. They learned to identify trees.

Over a couple of weeks, they did all the usual summer-camp adventures.

Then they went home.

But they went home changed. Now they knew that, beyond Harlem, beyond the desperation, anger and despair of their lives at the time, alternatives existed. Many went on to graduate. Some won university scholarships and made the alternatives real for themselves.

The experience was as powerful for Jeff. The next summer, he did it again. And the next summer. And the next.

He realized he’d found his calling, went back to university, and became a teacher and a leader in environmental and outdoor education. Today, decades laters, he’s no longer in the classroom, but continues to work with environmental and social organizations.

One sentence has stayed with me all these years since Jeff told me his story: “Some of those kids had never even seen a tree before they went on that field trip.”

It’s hard, here in nature-rich Victoria, to fathom how completely disconnected people can become from the simplest things that are also so complex and so fundamental to our day-to-day experience — the simple, complex things we take for granted.

In Victoria, of course, few youngsters — or oldsters, for that matter — haven’t observed and experienced trees and shrubberies firsthand, and learned to appreciate them at some level.

Nature schools ensure that familiarity goes deeper. They help to integrate outdoor experience into children’s daily activities, health and well-being.

For the kids’ benefit, as well as ours.

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