Lush trees, blanketed by freshly fallen snow on the banks of a glassy lake. For a small group of kindergarten students in Stony Plain, this landscape serves as their classroom.

The Parkland School Division Early Childhood Services has launched a new nature-based kindergarten program in partnership with the YWCA YoWoChAs Outdoor Education Centre on Wabamun Lake.

Children enrolled in the pilot project will travel to the education centre each morning, and spend their days braving the elements, hiking, rock climbing, exploring the beach and burrowing in the snow.

"There will be a whole lot of creativity, wonder and problem solving, but mostly a lot of fun, " said Raelene Finlayson, Early Childhood Development Supervisor with the Parkland School Division.  "We really want our kids to enjoy Parkland County, and get outside and explore."  

"Nature schools" (sometimes referred to as "forest schools") have been gaining in popularity across North America in recent years, but the Parkland County program is one of the first in Alberta. Proponents of the model believe children learn more when guided by their own curiosity and play.

Finlayson says the lesson plan is organic, and takes its cues from nature. For example, some paw prints spotted in the snow can take the lesson plan in a whole new direction.

"We were out there walking around the site just recently and there's animal tracks everywhere," said Finlayson.

"Imagine yourself as a five-year-old and wondering who made those tracks and asking where did they go?  And why didn't they come back the same way? What were they taking with them? The possibilities of the imagination and the research to follow  are endless."

Enrolment in the program, which costs $350 per month, is now open. More information is available here.