Thinking outside the four walls of the classroom: A Canadian Nature Kindergarten

Developing and implementing a Nature Kindergarten provided new opportunities for students and teachers to deepen their connections with place.

ABSTRACT

This article describes the planning and implementing of a Nature Kindergarten in the Sooke Public School District in British Columbia, Canada. The program was modeled on Waldkindergartens (forest Kindergartens in Germany) and other similar programs in Northern Europe, where children spend all or most of their school day outdoors. The development of the Nature Kindergarten was initiated by a teacher and an administrator in the Sooke School District, along with an early childhood teacher educator from a nearby college. Other community members – including key players from the Sooke School District such as the Principal of Aboriginal Education — soon joined the efforts.

The group decided that one of their first tasks was to establish a vision and principles for the Nature Kindergarten, as these would guide the educators who would be working with children in the outdoor setting. After extensive discussions, the planning team in consultation with other community members, identified the following set of pedagogical principles: (1) Connecting deeply with nature: environmental stewardship, (2) The environment as another teacher, (3) Learning collaboratively as a part of a community, (4) Physical and mental health, and (5) Aboriginal ways of knowing. Based on feedback from the local Indigenous community, the group changed the fifth principle, “Aboriginal ways of knowing,” to “Local Traditional Knowledges,” which in this case meant Coast Salish narratives and knowledge. Because Nature Kindergarten was a part of the public school system, the program also needed to fit into the prescribed provincial kindergarten curriculum for British Columbia. For the planners, this meant including the prescribed curriculum in their thinking.

Once the program started, a strong sense of community developed among the children and educators. The children learned from each other as well as their teachers, community experts, and the Aboriginal Support educator who worked with them one day a week. The other-than-human community was also recognized for offering many opportunities for learning and different ways for children to express their learning. Curriculum emerged from the interests and activities of the children along with their connections to their local environment. Learning about the place where they lived gave the children opportunities for learning that could not be found inside the classroom. The outdoor experience also provided the educators expanded opportunities to develop their thoughts and practices relating to emergent learning.

The overall experience of creating a Nature Kindergarten provided an educational opportunity to think differently about how young children learn and about what they should be learning. The experience also promoted the development of a pedagogy that embraces complexity and uncertainty. The educators wondered, at first, if the children could learn enough of the provincial curriculum if their time in the classroom was limited to the afternoons. After three months, one teacher noted that if the program was expanded to being outdoors all day, the children would be more than ready for grade one. It was evident that the children’s active engagement with the natural environment was promoting their abilities to notice, question, listen, share and grow.

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