Sunday, October 14, 2012

Outdoor Kindergarten popping up all over Vancouver Island

More and more we are seeing newspaper articles and online stories about the importance of time outdoors for children.  Benefits to children include valuable opportunities for hands on learning, become engaged in the learning environment, are active and develop physical skills such as coordination, balance and agility.  Children also develop the important cognitive, self discipline and self awareness skills which provides them with the necessary tools for them to thrive in everyday life.  There are statistics showing our children are becoming disconnected with nature and obesity is on the rise.  So it is no surprise that programs are being developed to get children outdoors.

Outdoor Kindergarten class enjoyng story time outdoors.
One program that seems to be popping up in local newspapers here in BC, specifically on Vancouver Island, is Forest Kindergarten.  School District 62 (Sooke) has started a pilot project for the 2012/2013 school year with a Forest Kindergarten.  This program will provide young children with large amounts of time in natural outdoor settings.  They will play, explore and experience natural setting and materials while being engaged outside in all types of weather.  Children and educators investigate natural phenomenon and learn about the place in which they live.  Sooke School District was not the first to initiate this program.  Sangster Elementary School in the Victoria suburb of Colwood, started what they called nature kindergarten in Sept 2011.  Children here spent half of their school day outside.

These two initiatives have sparked interest with many parents in the community where I live.  In fact, in May of 2012, I heard rumours of a forest kindergarten program being considered at the school in my community.  This was exciting news for me.  I have seen first hand how time in nature has benefited my children and my daughter Liv would be beginning kindergarten in the fall of 2012 at the school rumored to take on this program.

When kindergarten orientation began in June of 2012, more information was presented and I was surprised to learn that the program was initiated by a parent.  This parent had contacted the principal to see what it would take to start a Forest Kindergarten.  The principal was open to the idea and approached the two kindergarten teachers in the school to get their thoughts.  One of the kindergarten teachers loved the idea and was keen to be a part of an outdoor kindergarten program.  That then led to the parent and the principal writing a proposal to the Nanaimo/Ladysmith School District (SD68) to implement a Forest Kindergarten at Woodbank Primary School.

The proposal was rejected.  The Forest Kindergarten in Sooke has a price tag of $80,000 for two years, which is the salary for an Early Childhood Educator to assist the teacher.  SD68 was not prepared to fund a forest kindergarten for the 2012/2013 school year.  That did not stop the principal, parent, and kindergarten teacher.  They came up with a modified version called Outdoor Kindergarten and presented it at the kindergarten orientation.  The idea was to offer Outdoor Kindergarten to one class if parents were willing to volunteer time, commit to having their children outside in all weather, and drive students when applicable.  The idea was supported and in Sept of 2012 Outdoor Kindergarten began at Woodbank Primary School. 

So, what is Outdoor Kindergarten?  It is kindergarten with outdoor field trips.  Two mornings a week (8:30-11:00am) the amazing kindergarten teacher along with 4 dedicated parents take the classroom outside.  We are just over a month in and so far the program is working wonderful!  Outdoor Kindergarten does not need to be fancy and includes a large range of outdoor learning experiences in many environments.  So far we have explored the forest on the school grounds, hiked thru the forest in Hemer Park, built a shelter out of cedar boughs and branches, searched for frogs, explored the open grassy field at Hemer Park, explored the beach searching for marine life at low tide and visited a farm where numerous apples, berries and grapes were plucked fresh and eaten.  Each outing has a craft project, circle time where books are read or songs sung, snack time and free play.  Watching the children play, explore and learn is amazing!

Outdoor Kindergarten classmates teaming up to roll logs into the ocean
Our Outdoor Kindergarten would never have happened without the support and dedication of many people.  I have been asked by many how this was started and how can they get one in their community.  It was started with one parent’s small idea and supported by the school, teacher, and parents.  My only advice in starting one in your own community is to begin having a conversation with your school principal.  If they support it chances are others will too.  Now that more programs are starting up, more schools and school districts will be open to the idea.  It never hurts to ask. 

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