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Vancouver-area children take learning to the forest

Vancouver Trending: Forest school is an educational approach that builds relationships between students and the natural world

Children learning (and at play) at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Suzanne Serwatuk of Enchanted Chameleon

Children learning (and at play) at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Surrounded by moss-covered trees, a group of raincoat-clad children closely examine a slug, peppering their teacher with questions about what it eats and where it lives. This might not look like a traditional classroom, but for a growing number of Vancouver area children, the forest is where they learn.

Forest School is an educational approach based on developing a relationship between the learner and the natural environment. Students of all levels and abilities gain hands-on experience in nature, learning through discovery. Vancouver has seen a steady increase in such schools over the past five or six years.

Tricia Edgar, executive director of Fresh Air Learning, an organization that works to bring nature connection programs to children, believes that natural places are some of the most important teachers for children. Fresh Air Learning runs several forest and farm programs and camps, and offers professional development for educators.

Learning outdoors helps children understand their "ability to navigate risks" and increases their physical capacity, said Edgar. It helps them "feel strong and powerful and offers them a positive social environment."  Outdoor learning has also been associated with improved concentration and cognitive development.

A child at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Suzanne Serwatuk of Enchanted Chameleon

A child at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Forest schools differ from more traditional outdoor education in that they offer repeated access to a natural space, centred around child-led, play-based learning, "observing the child's interests, documenting them, and then introducing items that foster interest," Edgar said.

At Soaring Eagle Nature School, children can attend forest camps as well as weekly and monthly programs, engaging in nature-based play. Alderwood House preschool offers an outdoor-based child care centre in Richmond. Children identify animal footprints and birdcalls, play in mud puddles and go for walks.

In West Van, Saplings Outdoor Program gives kids the chance to engage in outdoor, nature-based play, fostering creativity and unhurried learning.

Exploration and discovery (and slugs!) at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Suzanne Serwatuk of Enchanted Chameleon

Exploration and discovery (and slugs!) at the Fresh Air Learning forest school.

Students of the Environmental School in Maple Ridge attend classes in the UBC Research Forest, studying such things as soil erosion first hand. Begun as an inquiry-based nature school for elementary students, it has been so successful that it is currently being expanded into a program for high school students.

Children have "varying degrees of exposure to fresh air learning. A lot of kids have no access," said Edgar. Forest schools help kids get to know a space and become attached to it, fostering "a connection to place. Everything starts with that."

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