David Bly: Make all kindergartens nature kindergarten

Some Greater Victoria school trustees are having second thoughts about approving a nature-kindergarten program for two James Bay schools, especially after the teachers’ association sent a letter to the school board expressing concerns about the proposal.

The concerns of trustees and the teachers are not groundless — put nature kindergarten into a couple of schools and pretty soon, everyone else will want one.

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And so they should — every kindergarten should be a nature kindergarten.

Why didn’t someone think of that when I was a kid? I was ahead of my time. The “shortcut” along the creek on the way to school often made me late, but I didn’t know what a good defence I had for my tardiness — I was simply involved in nature kindergarten. Never mind that my nature kindergarten lasted through my high school years and things haven’t changed much since then.

When registration opened in February 2012 for the nature kindergarten program at Sangster Elementary in Sooke, parents camped overnight on the steps of the school district office to ensure their kids got into the program. The first in line was Kim Meadows, who said it was something her son would love to be part of.

“We’re such an outdoorsy family,” she told Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines. “We camp and hike and go outside, and he’s a tree-climber, beachcombing, forest-hiker kind of boy.”

Students in nature kindergarten spend their mornings, no matter what weather, hiking the forests at Royal Roads University or combing the beaches of Esquimalt Lagoon. They learn about plants, animals and the environment, then return to the classroom for more traditional indoor learning in the afternoon.

In an era when children are increasingly engrossed in electronic gadgets and other passive entertainment, to the point of addiction, we need more tree-climbing, beachcombing, forest-hiking kids. They need to be outdoors breathing fresh air, getting muddy, poking under leaves in search of bugs, wondering what makes the clouds. We need more free-range children, not creatures like those sad chickens caged in egg factories, pale birds laying pale eggs with pale flavour.

In discovering what the natural world offers, children will discover themselves. They will find room to grow, to explore, to experiment.

Classroom lessons will mean more when students have an understanding of what lies beyond school windows. They will better understand that the world is not a collection of disparate pieces, but a system of interconnected components.

A student who begins to understand the intricacies of the habitat along a small stream will not likely consciously engage in activities that will cause pollution or otherwise damage the environment. A child who becomes interested in insects, choosing to study them rather than stomp on them, will be more likely to treat fellow human beings with kindness and concern.

The kid who can get excited about a pileated woodpecker hunting insects in a dead tree will be less impressed by Angry Birds on a tiny screen.

Climbing trees involves the risk of broken bones. Not climbing trees — or engaging in other vigorous activities — brings the more serious risk of obesity and poor physical fitness.

The fact that the nature kindergarten program at Sangster Elementary filled up instantly and has a waiting list speaks volumes. Parents want it; children want it.

“Talk to any parent or teacher and ask them if there is any value to provide an outdoor education component to a child’s education and you will have a resounding ‘Yes,’ ” wrote Lise Tétrault, Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association vice-president, in her letter to the school district. “Making this happen, however, is a different matter. At a time when funding for education is at an all-time low, diverting dollars to a specialty program places an even greater burden on individual parents to provide their children with opportunities which should be accessible, free of charge, to all children.

“All schools should be encouraged to include elements of such a program in their school and should be provided the funds to make it happen.”

The school board should approve nature kindergarten for the James Bay schools, not as a specialty program, but as a pilot with the aim of making it the norm in all schools.

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