Thunder Bay

Using the outdoors as a classroom: Forest School approach being explored in Kenora

Starting in September 2018, students at Keewatin Public School will be doing much of their learning outside, as the elementary school in Kenora, Ont., works to gain its accreditation as a Forest School.

Being outside 'makes us happier beings' and more attentive says principal of Keewatin Public School

A young student at Keewatin Public School, near Kenora, Ont., is taking part in a regular outdoor classroom activity. (Keewatin Patricia District School Board )

Starting in September 2018, students at Keewatin Public School will be doing much of their learning outside, as the elementary school in Kenora, Ont., works to gain its accreditation as a Forest School.

Forest Schools offer an internationally-recognized approach to education, which fosters the natural curiosity of children, especially when they're surrounded by trees, rocks, and wildlife.

Students will follow the provincial curriculum but, as often as possible, the outdoor environment will serve as their classroom, said Heather Mutch, the school's principal.

'Develop a love' for nature and take care of it

"We feel that as long as our kids are well-dressed — and we ensure they're well-dressed — we can probably go outside in pretty much anything," she said.

"Our hope is that by engaging and connecting with nature, they will develop a love for our wonderful environment and grow up learning to take care of it."

Every subject, from literacy to mathematics, can be taught using examples found in nature, Mutch added.

As part of the Forest School approach to education, students at Keewatin Public School, near Kenora, Ont., will spend more of their day participating in outdoor learning experiences, such as pond studies like this. (Keewatin Patricia District School Board )

"We teach patterning and algebra so they are able to go and look for patterns in the environment through tree bark, through moss and the plants around them," she continued.

"Right now they're looking at birds so they've seen chickadees and they're now starting to record their observations and tally the number of birds that they're seeing."

Being outdoors also has many mental health benefits, Mutch said, citing research which shows "when we're connected with nature, we're calmer, we have a chance to move and to breathe, and it just makes us happier beings."

A strong connection to the natural world also helps reduce screen time, and can help children be more active through a variety of outdoor activities that promote exercise.

Students calmer, more attentive when outside

Mutch said she has observed many positive changes in how the young students absorb information when they move from inside to the bush which surrounds the school.

"The issues they have in the classroom, with being loud and noisy and aggressive really do reduce when we go outside because students are really engaged with the environment."

Learning outside makes students and teachers calmer and happier says Heather Mutch, the principal of Keewatin Public School. The school is hoping to be accredited as a Forest School, which means much of its teaching will take place outdoors, such as the class activity pictured here. (Keewatin Patricia District School Board)

Keewatin Public School is also preparing to unveil a new outdoor learning space, based on the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire, to help it achieve its Forest School accreditation.

A donation from Domtar in Dryden, Ont., will assist staff in the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board to receive training through the Forest School program of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.