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Forest at Royal Roads University to host nature Kindergarten

October 21, 2011
Goldstream News Gazette
Edward Hill

When three-and-a-half year old Dexter Heath walks down a forest trail at Royal Roads University, it doesn't take him long to grab a big red maple leaf, pull apart a pine cone and picks a chunk of bark off a Douglas fir.

Nature as a learning space is an idea the Sooke School District plans to embrace, literally. Dexter could be among the first cohort of kids using the Royal Roads forest as a classroom next year.

The district plans to roll out a "nature kindergarten" pilot in September 2012, where one class of 22 kids based out of Sangster elementary will spend their mornings exploring the natural environment, rain or shine.

"We want kids to develop an appreciation for the environment, spend more time outdoors, and develop a sense of environmental stewardship," said Frances Krusekopf, SD 62 district principal of curriculum and programs. "Children will spend their mornings in nature, regardless of the weather, in the Royal Roads forest, on the lagoon or near the water."

A typical day for this class might involve getting hands-on with plants, trees, and intertidal life, learning names of flora and fauna and having play time outside. The afternoon would be back in the classroom.

"A big piece of (nature kindergarten) is that children walk quite a bit, they're a lot more physically active in the outdoors," Krusekopf said. "The concept is about learning in nature and following the natural cycles of the seasons."

The original "forest preschools" concept emerged in Sweden decades ago, and has been used in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and a few places in Canada. The SD 62 pilot project is budgeted at $80,000 for two years, and includes a teacher and early childhood educator. Krusekopf is actively seeking grants to fund the nature kindergarten program.

Part of the budget is to ensure the kids have the proper clothing for wind, rain and snow conditions - they don't want 22 four and five-years-olds getting cold and cranky in the middle of a forest.

"If children are dressed for the weather, children are less likely to notice the weather than adults," Krusekopf said. "Children truly want to go outside and splash around in a puddle."

Sooke School District trustee chair Wendy Hobbs suspects parents won't apply for nature K if they feel their child won't enjoy the outdoors. "Parents know their child and know if their children would do well in a program like this."

The school board has backed this pilot project, Hobbs said, as it will help further diversify education programs in the district.

"There are many different ways children learn, and this is one of the them," she said. "We've got hockey academy, a trades school. This is one more feature to show parents this is an exciting education district to be in.

"The board is definitely looking forward to see how nature kindergarten progresses."

Enid Elliot, an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria's school of child and youth care, plans to research and document the experience of SD 62's nature K to help other districts follow suit.

Nature K could become an important tool to stem the tide of kids alienated from nature, Elliot said, as technology envelops young peoples' lives.

"So many people are worried children are hooked into the Internet and aren't going outside," she said. "This is an opportunity to connect kids with the natural landscape, this provides the opportunity when they're impressionable. Children are such hands-on learners."

Nature kindergarten will be based out of a modular classroom at Sangster school, which is on the southern periphery of Royal Roads campus. RRU itself, the University of Victoria, Camosun College and the Royal B.C. Museum are also interested in participating in aspects of the program.

"Nature kindergarten is an innovative idea at many levels," Krusekopf said. "This many groups collaborating with the school district is innovative in itself."

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