“Every day our relationship with nature, or lack of it, influences our lives. This has always been true. But in the twenty-first century, our survival – our thrival – will require a transformative framework for that relationship, a reunion of humans with the rest of nature.”
Richard Louv, The Nature Principle
At the November 2012 Educational Leadership Conference entitled: Partnerships for Personalization: Leading and Transforming Together, I was very fortunate to attend an excellent session on the Sooke School District’s Nature Kindergarten program located at Sangster Elementary School in Colwood, a suburb of Victoria.
The program, created in collaboration with post-secondary partners from the area, including Dr. Enid Elliot – an early childhood researcher from Camosun College, is designed on the model of “Forest Preschools” (“Waldkindergarten”) that have been popular in Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, New Zealand and the UK. According to the workshop presenters, the Sooke Nature Kindergarten program is on the “front end of the wave” of nature-based early learning programs in B.C.
Sooke’s program provides children with outdoor instruction every day, rain or shine. Students have the whole morning to explore natural outdoor settings where they can play, build, observe, and connect with local ecosystems. Afternoons are spent back in a portable classroom with the teacher and ECE instructor, debriefing the morning’s discoveries and making important curriculum connections.
In his 2005 book, Last Child in the Wood, Richard Louv coined the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe the behavioral issues resulting from the lack of time children spend outdoors. Louv blames a number of factors on this disorder, including: restricted access to nature, parental fears, over-scheduled, over-structured sports programs, and the increased time children spend with electronic (TV, video games, cell phones, etc.).
Young parents may be starting to understand this issue better. Many are looking for meaningful ways to connect their children with nature. Nature Kindergarten is a popular option in the Sooke school district. After 18 months of planning and public input, the new program was announced last year. Over 75 parents camped out for one of the coveted 22 spots in the program. Next year the school district is anticipating even greater interest in the program and may be considering a lottery system for registration.
And interest in the new Nature Kindergarten has not been limited to local parents. This innovative program has attracted many Kindergarten and ECE teachers interested in positions on staff, as well as researchers and educators from out of district who wish to observe and study the program.
The Nature Kindergarten program in Sooke has been very successful in its first year in helping a whole new generation of young people develop a deeper appreciation for nature, a more meaningful connection to natural systems, and a greater awareness of the need for environment stewardship. Another important, and perhaps unexpected, corollary of this unique outdoor learning program is the positive impact it is having on children’s social emotional development. According to the program representatives, learning outdoors has required that students in the Nature Kindergarten program develop autonomy, empathy, and a sense of kinship not only with nature, but also with their peers.