Our students won’t be visiting UCC’s Norval Outdoor School during this uncommon school year. So Norval has come to them.
Bill Elgie, Norval’s director, and Norval senior teacher Brent Evans have taken the tree-laden Where the Wild Things Are garden on the Lonsdale campus, cleared the underbrush, and turned it into an outdoor classroom/experiential education space. Primary students spend two hours there with Evans every nine days. Middle Years students take advantage of wilder corners of the property to immerse themselves in nature for an hour under Elgie’s leadership.
“We’ve had to change the [outdoor] program pretty drastically,” says Evans. “Initially, we were concerned about how we could safely bring fun, interactive play to UCC, but we’re proud of what we’ve been able to do.”
Evans and Elgie spent two weeks clearing and designing the space for the primary grades, based on the theories of David Sobel, a pioneering environmental educator who says, “If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, let us allow them to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”
Sobel suggests that nature play requires spaces that allow for various types of outdoor experiences: hunting/gathering; fantasy and imagination; special places; maps and paths; animal allies; and adventure. Where the Wild Things Are provides those spaces.
There are nooks and crannies to explore amidst the larger space. And there’s adventure to be found at the postman’s bridge where the boys walk across a rope while steadying themselves by holding a pulley rope that moves along with them. The teachers have also covered a large mound of dirt remaining from excavating the space with wood chips and it has become a place for imaginary play.
Each session begins with a story that is often tied to the curriculum. Evans told primary students a tale whose moral was to be kind to nature, reflecting a lesson on empathy, and the boys went on to create adventure parks for the worms living in the ground nearby. Elgie taught students about Canada’s Food Guide by affixing symbols of food items to trees and making it into a scavenger hunt, asking Year 5 students to find the items and put them into the appropriate food guide category.
“We have a shorter period of time than we would if students were at Norval, so we’ve transferred our work into wellbeing efforts,” says Evans. “We try to incorporate lessons into a play format, but we still have to find ways to make it magical. We’re giving them a love of the outdoors and a comfort level with it while they are also learning. Children have learned through play for thousands of years and we don’t want to lose that.”