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Teachers take learning outdoors, rain or shine

'We incorporate our math programming out there as well as open exploration and further student inquiry,' says elementary school teacher

This weekend’s balmy, summer-like days make it seem like just about anything is possible outdoors.

Local teachers took advantage of the weather during Saturday’s Spring Back to Nature outdoor education conference at Springwater Provincial Park in Midhurst. And through facilitators — many, their peers — teachers learned the weather doesn’t need to be nice for the outdoors to accommodate learning.

“If it’s raining, we’ll have our rain gear on and we’re out there unless it’s a torrential downpour,” said Janice Whiteside, kindergarten educator at  W.H. Day Elementary School in Bradford. “Our kids love it outside. There’s so much you can explore just with a puddle — measuring, float, sink. We run with it.

“We’re outside every day for at least 100 minutes. Our whole end-of-the-day block is outdoors with the students. We incorporate our math programming out there as well as open exploration and further student inquiry.”

The school ground surface in Bradford is dominated by tarmac and grass, so Whiteside will take students on community walks where they’ll collect sticks. They’ll then paint the sticks that are later used for sorting, measuring and making shapes or lining them up according to size.

The same sticks can be used to create art using symmetry.

Along with Courtney Burlanyette, a Grade 2 French immersion teacher at the Bradford school, Whiteside shared some of the activities they do using material available through the Simcoe County District School Board.

Using “math buckets” containing oversized dominoes and large graph paper mounted on cardboard, Burlanyette puts the blocks together demonstrating spatial sense.

Just what can be accomplished, no matter the environment, is boundless, say the teachers.

That’s the point of the conference held regularly by the board’s outdoor education and well-being department.

“Typically, in the past, we had these events three times a year,” explained Cathy Lethbridge, principal of well-being for the Simcoe County District School Board. “COVID made it so we couldn’t get together physically for two-and-a-bit years, but we continued on and we did them virtually, which changes the experience because we’re not in the outdoors.”

Now, finally outdoors, the educators, staff and before- and after-school child-care providers — about 100 all told — were able to get out together.

The purpose of the gathering is to provide space for educators to come together to reflect on wellness and learning in the outdoors through interactive workshops, providing ideas that can be used to enhance personal and professional well-being.

While the program used to focus on education for primary grades, it has since expanded to include students from kindergarten to Grade 12. It has recently been expanded further.

“With COVID, especially, we realized the importance of well-being and helping people with their mental health,” said Lethbridge.

Workshops geared to primary, junior and intermediate students, and some just for the adults, ranged from teaching different subjects outdoors, including French and art, to exploring flora and the ecosystem, forest bathing, and yoga.

Bonnie Anderson, the board’s co-ordinator of outdoor environmental education and healthy active living, has found being outdoors has become particularly helpful for young students who have spent a significant portion of their developmental years confined as a result of the pandemic.

“Outside learning has really helped kids calm down and deal with the anxiety of COVID and find safe spaces,” Anderson said, adding teaching outdoors adds another dimension for the students, complete with different spaces.