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OUTDOORS: Revival of outdoor education is welcome news

Muskoka Highlands Academy says 'their students are wild, dirty and happy' ... a mantra more should adopt, says columnist
The moto of the Muskoka Highlands Academy states their students 'are wild, dirty and happy.' Words to live by, says columnist.

I have had great opportunity to be involved with outdoor education programs for the past 43 years, working with students from Kindergarten to fourth year university. No matter the age, the ‘kids’ are a blast to work with as they are in their natural habitat ... the great outdoors!

There has been a wide variety of programs presented within 4-H Clubs, Scouts Canada, Jr. Naturalists, and conservation cubs. The provincial government has offered programs at Ontario Parks and at Nature Interpretation Centres. Many conservation authorities conducted a variety of student-centred programs.

And many non-government organizations have promoted lesson plans and activities via Project WILD, Focus on Forests, Fish Ways and others. In one role or another I’ve been lucky to have been involved with most of these initiatives.

The hinge-pin has been, in many cases, the buy-in or not by the local school boards. In the 1980s and 90s nature field trips were a given: fully funded and supported by “the board.”

Teachers formed an organization called the Council of Outdoor Educators Ontario (COEO) and held fabulous conferences to share teaching techniques and activities.

But all this was followed by a strange era of the withholding of permissions and support. Outdoor ed all but disappeared. The Frost Centre near Dorset was closed. The naturalist position at Tiny Marsh was eliminated. The Wye Marsh Centre was threatened with closure by the federal government. School boards seemed lost as to what role outdoor education played in their tightly controlled curricula.

Have to admit, I was confused about all this negativity towards learning of conservation values and of the importance of preserving our life-giving natural environment. (I guess this is the era when our current political leaders were going to school ... they seemed to have missed out on these basic lessons.)

However, the tide has turned. While I was off working other contracts and not really paying attention, a number of keen teachers were putting together innovative classroom modules based on water, trees, wildlife, air, soil and our ecological roles within the elements.

In the past few weeks I have become aware that there are some terrific things happening under the umbrella of outdoor education. From private schools to mainstream public school boards, there is a growing number of classes that are not just taking a period or two to study nature but are creating whole semesters dedicated to being outside and involved.

Recently the Simcoe County District School Board created a permanent board-level position dedicated to outdoor education and active learning. I’m impressed!

Via a Lakehead University outreach program to high schools, I’ve met some way cool outdoor ed teachers in Elmvale, Stayner, Orillia, Innisfil, and Sault Ste. Marie. Their students are challenged to not only learn about natural resources but also how to engage with their communities, from tree planting to garden tending to building bird and bat boxes. The students pull garlic mustard and cut Phragmites. They work with and for Parks Canada, Ontario Parks, conservation authorities and private nature centres and outdoor organizations. Totally awesome!

There is dedicated enthusiasm by these teachers and their school principals to create opportunities for their students to realize that the next academic steps into college or university may well include options within environmental sustainability.

And let’s not overlook the little guys ...  attending Forest School or being enrolled in private lessons focused on being outdoors are options that never existed even a decade ago. These facilities are fast growing in support, attendance and number.

Another layer of awesomeness that has been realized is the resourcefulness of these ‘new age’ outdoor ed teachers. One example is the Brookstone Academy in Oro-Medonte which utilizes two rural community halls as their meeting places, halls that were otherwise sitting quiet and somewhat unused. These buildings are now being leased, occupied and appreciated by a very interesting young generation of students.

A second example is the Muskoka Highlands Academy near Huntsville. They lease a ski resort for the fall and spring semesters and then a golf resort for winter semester. Brilliant! These buildings and grounds would normally be sitting empty for several months of the year ... and now burst with activity and excitement!

So, despite the current dismal state of affairs with our provincial “leaders”, there is hope that an upcoming generation of voters and environmental workers will find ways to sustain, at some level, a working natural environment. To meet these current and future challenges is a young person who is right now, somewhere out there, whacking his or her classmate with a cattail seed head while they learn about wetlands.

As the motto of the Muskoka Highlands Academy states, “their students are wild, dirty and happy.” Rock on, outdoor educators, rock on!