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© Lora Denis
The chestnut-sided warbler’s song sounds like he’s “pleased-pleased-pleased-to-meetcha!” – I explained to a group of children at one of Ontario Nature’s many outdoor summer events last year.
While running Ontario Nature’s summer outreach program in Thunder Bay, I saw a gap in children’s knowledge of local species, especially birds. Although I felt heartened at their stories about giant walleye or bears at their camp, I was shocked at how little everyone knew about local bird species. When I would take out pictures of common ducks, like mallards, or what I perceived to be unmistakable species, like the American white pelican that frequents Lake Superior, many guesses from kids only went as far as “bird.”
Considering that children are spending most of their time indoors as a result of the pandemic, it’s not surprising that they encounter and recognize the ‘Apple’ logo more than the song sparrows that have been singing along their schoolyard fence since they were in kindergarten.
When I was a student, I recall having to beg teachers to let us go outside for class, and even when we did, we were confined to a tight circle where the teacher could keep a close eye on us.
Times are changing, albeit slowly. Amid the global pandemic there has been a greater shift towards outdoor learning and place-based education. Place-based education helps to support today’s youth to become tomorrow’s stewards of the lands and water we depend on. Learning more about local flora and fauna helps to nurture relationships of respect and reciprocity with the living world.
Outdoor learning in nature also has immense mental and physical health benefits, which students need now more than ever in these uncertain times. With new classroom regulations requiring students to stay in their seats 2 metres apart (1950s style), teachers have an opportunity to make outdoor classrooms in nature a regular part of the day.
Some outdoor classrooms are even going so far as getting the students to help our natural environment while outdoors, teaching ecological values while also removing invasive shrubs on school property. Teaching students outdoors about which plants are healthy for the local ecosystem is exactly what we need more of to balance the current trend of school systems, which tends to overemphasize technology. We must avoid, as Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods so pointedly stated, “putting all our eggs on one computer chip”.
To assist teachers with outdoor classrooms, Ontario Nature’s Boreal Program has created a booklet with video links and activities designed to connect teachers and students with nature in their schoolyard and neighborhoods, with a special focus on local birds. Many thanks to the Thunder Bay Community Foundation and TD Friends of the Environment for their financial support.
From my experience as an educator, the more rocks children can look under, trees they can climb, species they can observe… the more focused and the happier they’ll be.