Ah, the wonders of childhood. A time when your imagination can take you anywhere and when your natural surroundings provide endless possibilities for fun and creative play.
This is the basis behind a new forest school program that is currently being piloted in Sackville and that’s exactly what I discovered when I took a trip to Beech Hill Park on Thursday morning to get an up-close look at the program in action.
After parking the car at the gate, and making my way into the park, I soon caught up with Leanne Laracey, one of the outdoor educators, and a small group of the children, who were leisurely wandering down the trail toward their “base camp site,” periodically stopping to check out some neat rocks along the way or to draw arrows for their parents who would be visiting later that morning. Leanne says even things as basic as drawing arrows in the dirt with sticks is a good way for preschool-aged kids to start learning fundamental literacy skills, such as shapes and letters.
The others were already ahead and were waiting for us in the open field area, where they then gathered under the gigantic ‘Story Tree’ for their opening circle. Agnes Koller, the other outdoor educator, led the group in a few interactive songs and then had them listening intently as she told them a story about fairies living in the woods.
Then came the part the kids all seemed to be waiting for – heading into the woods. Rushing over excitedly to the ‘Forest School’ banner, which serves as their official entrance to their domain, the children all took turns ringing the fairy bells (to ask permission from the woodland creatures to enter the forest). And as we entered their campsite, it was easy to see why they could hardly contain their excitement. Forts, lean-tos, a kitchen area, an obstacle course, an arts and crafts ‘room,’ a storytime area – so much to fuel the imagination that a couple hours seems hardly enough time to take it all in. I mean if you’re a kid, of course.
Leanne says she and Agnes wandered through Beech Hill for hours on end trying to find the right site for the forest school and came upon this “nice, diverse area” that now serves as their outdoor classroom.
With plenty of space for the kids to move around and explore, along with lots of sticks and branches and trees to use for their shelters, and logs they can balance on and other natural materials they can interact with, it was a perfect fit, she says.
The kids, I’m guessing, would tend to agree, as they all played freely and comfortably around the site – some picked ferns to decorate their fort, some were busy moving brush to use on their lean-to, some were sitting under the tarp coloring pictures or making wood pendants, just to name a few.
“The kids are proud of the space they’ve created here,” says Agnes.
On other days, they’ve gone tree climbing or picking wild strawberries or bird watching or treasure collecting.
“It’s been amazing,” says Leanne. “We’ve been having a great time. And there’s always so much more we can do.”
Through this outdoor, nature-based programming, the kids, without even realizing it, are gaining a lifelong appreciation for nature. Being “all outside, all the time,” the children are seeing significant benefits, ranging from improved physical and mental well-being, to learning to care for the natural environment around them.
Agnes explains that not every child has the opportunity today to spend as much time exploring the outdoors as they’d like – simply hanging out in the woods or at the beach for hours on end. She hopes to make the forest school program a full-time reality here in Sackville so that can become the norm again for our youth.
This pilot program, which ran for the past month with two morning sessions per week (Tuesdays and Thursdays), is a great first step in that direction. Although the two women still have plenty of details to iron out, including trying to get the Department of Education to recognize the forest school as a supplemental educational preschool program instead of a daycare, they are excited about its future potential.
“It really has come together in a way that’s exceeded our expectations,” says Agnes. “The children are even more engaged than we thought, they really seem to thrive in this setting.”