Back in 2013 when Shawna and Jay Roberts first envisioned a learning program to connect Tofino and Ucluelet kids to nature, the couple were naive to the fact that the very pedagogical model they were imagining had already been established.
After doing their homework, the founders of Tofino Nature Kids discovered Forest School (FS) – an internationally recognized approach to education, rooted to Sweden, Denmark, and other European countries.
“Forest School Canada is moving into their second year,” Shawna Roberts told the Westerly News at a Tofino Nature Kids open house on Saturday.
“It’s (FS) just starting to grow in North America. It’s still pretty new.”
According the Forest School Canada website, “FS differs from other outdoor learning experiences in two ways. First, FS takes place in the same setting on a regular basis over an extended period of time.”
“Second, while there are some structured elements, the FS curriculum is largely emergent, child-directed, and play-based.”
Tofino Nature Kids whole-heartedly embraces the FS philosophy with their home base being ideally situated on the shoreline of the Tofino Botanical Gardens.
“We’re in such an incredible natural environment and the fact that we’re in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is a piece… This particular area of land is so important to draw people’s attention to,” Roberts said.
“So in that way, it’s been great to have people from out-of-town come to our programs so we can educate them about the land and helping to preserve this amazing place.”
One of the biggest challenges Roberts has faced over the course of growing her children’s nature centre is the resistance from parents to value organized outdoor education.
“They think ‘Oh we live in Tofino, our kids are already connected to nature, we don’t need to put them in a program that’s specific for that,’” she said.
“But we focus on deep nature connections. That’s really just remembering that we used to depend on nature for survival, for our medicines, food, and everything.”
For the little ones or ‘Wrens’ and ‘Otters’ as they’re called in the program, that involves finding an outdoor sit spot, storytelling, and a lot of exploration, according to Roberts.
“We play this game called Owl Eyes. It’s like hide and seek in the forest, but what’s it’s teaching them to do is find a spot in the forest and sit and be quiet and then slowly they notice the spider crawling down from the branch,” she said.
Roberts said there are Forest School education programs popping up everywhere and some schools are even incorporating the philosophy into their full curriculum.
“There are so many studies that say even teaching our normal subjects outside allows the children to concentrate more fully and provides a better learning environment,” she said
The Forest School Canada website cites “creating sustainable and healthy communities” as one of the key benefits of FS programming.
“We are always looking for more community involvement. Part of the concept of Nature School is to build and grow communities, so that’s important to us,” Roberts said.
To stave off wet and dreary West Coast days, Tofino Nature Kids had a tiny shed-like classroom built by volunteer dads in the early fall.
The space is a complete with a wood fireplace, a rain water catchment system for hand-washing, and a rigid polycarbonate roof so the kids can take in the lulling patter of rain.
“We are trying to encourage people with specific skills to come and be guest speakers and guest facilitators,” Roberts said adding one of the parents recently came in and taught the kids about knitting.