Educators at an elementary school that holds classes outside for six weeks each year have been recognized with an environmental award.
Manitoba Eco-Network presented its Anne Lindsey Protecting Our Earth Award last month to the staff at the kindergarten-to-Grade 5 Brooklands School in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division. The award was presented in appreciation for the many ways staff teach students to care for the Earth.
"I think any time you’re recognized for the work that you do, it leads one to feel a little bit honoured or valued," says principal Rex Ferguson-Baird. "I see it as a vehicle to connect with other schools and become a resource for others."
Brooklands caught the attention of the Manitoba Eco-Network because of its unique approach to education. For the final month-and-a-half of each school year, teachers move their classrooms outdoors, rain or shine.
Taking the learning outdoors has allowed Brooklands staff to foster a love of nature in their students and deliver valuable lessons that cannot be learned in a regular classroom.
Staff members believe outdoor school provides numerous benefits to a child’s physical, cognitive, social and emotional development, and they strive to engage each student in a meaningful relationship with nature that will nurture them for a lifetime.
Helping students learn to love the Earth is the first step in teaching them to be global citizens, says Shannon Siemens, who teaches grades 1 and 2 at the school.
"They will learn about social activism, global warming and reducing, reusing and recycling as they get older, but I believe right now, in order for them to want to save the environment… they need to love the Earth," she says.
Siemens and one of her colleagues were inspired to try outdoor school after having a conversation with other educators who had done a two-week outdoor challenge. Four classrooms at Brooklands held their own two-week outdoor challenge in spring 2015.
"We were instantly hooked," Siemens says. "The kids loved it and the teachers loved it."
Today, every grade — 210 students spread across 10 classrooms — participates.
"We are a traditional school in that we have a routine every day, but when we get to outdoor school season, we sit down and reschedule things," Ferguson-Baird says. "It still has the main content, and teachers are uncovering curricular outcomes, we’re just doing it outside."
Each morning of outdoor school has an academic focus. Students work on their reading, writing and math skills just as they would in the classroom, except they do it outdoors.
The second half of each day is focused on exploratory learning. Afternoons begin with what staff members call Discovery, a time when students can try a variety of activities at different stations that staff have set up. One station allows them to play with sticks and work with wood, others allow them to explore water and wind.
After Discovery, the rest of the afternoon is dedicated to free play.
"Free play gives them that time to maybe apply some of the skills they’ve learned about in Discovery or extend their new understanding," Siemens says.
Brooklands School is located on a double lot, so there is a lot of space for students to spread out and explore.
In 2016, the school removed an unused section of asphalt and built a community garden that brings educators, students, parents and community members together during the growing season.
Brooklands staff have also created a robust cycling program, which includes 70 bicycles available for student use. Staff provide cycling education to teach students about active transportation, safety and repair in partnership with community organizations.
It’s the first time on a bike for some, says educational assistant Joelle Suzuki.
"The joy of watching a child learn to ride a bike for the first time is just amazing," she says. "I love that we are able to give them that opportunity."
Brooklands School teachers take their students outdoors year-round, but the community especially looks forward to outdoor school each spring, Siemens says.
"When the kids get outside, they have a new energy for learning and a greater stamina for it," she says. "They are voracious for the opportunity to explore out there, and to have those opportunities for teamwork and creativity."
Staff appreciate the outdoors, too.
"It’s a real happy place to be," Suzuki says. "It doesn’t feel like work for me. It’s just enjoyable."
Manitoba Eco-Network established the Anne Lindsey Protecting Our Earth Award, affectionately known by its staff as the Earthies, in 1990. The award is presented annually in recognition of achievements in protecting and stewarding Manitoba’s environment.
The organization was happy to present Brooklands School with the 2020 award.
"I think initiatives that involve young people and youth are really important," says Emily Halldorson, resource manager at Manitoba Eco-Network. "If we want to raise children who care about the Earth and care about protecting it, we have to expose them to those experiences that will allow them to develop that love for nature and understanding of why they should be caring about it."
Ferguson-Baird agrees. "If we can teach our students today how to experience nature and how to care for it, that’s going to impact future generations."
Brooklands School is currently looking for donations of winter boots and rain boots for students. Call 204-633-9630 to contribute.