Abbotsford schools learn about Sts. Bernadette and Francis of Assisi's love of creation
Blessed Pope John Paul II loved skiing, hiking, and mountain climbing. St. Bernadette Soubirous encountered the Blessed Virgin in a grotto on the banks of a river. St. Francis of Assisi loved all creation, considering all of nature part of his brotherhood.
Starting next school year the kindergarten students at St. James and St. Ann's School (SJSA) in Abbotsford will get an opportunity to embrace the outdoors as part of their faith education. The school is about to become the first Catholic school in the province to offer an outdoor education program as part of the daily curriculum.
"Children spend more and more time in front of the TV and playing video games; they have lost their connection with nature. We know from health research and statistics that children of this generation are less physically active and less fit," explained Terri Sask, principal of SJSA, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Germany became the first country to offer outdoor schools nearly 50 years ago. Known as "forest" or "rain or shine" schools, the idea has spread through Europe in both primary schools and preschools. Today outdoor schools operate in Australia, the U.K., the U.S., and New Zealand.
In B.C., a North Vancouver preschool and classes from kindergarten to Grade 5 in the Maple Ridge School District head outside every single day. The Sooke School District will offer a nature kindergarten next fall.
Research indicates children from such schools not only perform well academically in later years, but have other positive outcomes.
"There are so many benefits, including increased physical fitness, a close connection to nature and the environment that will last a lifetime, an increase in positive interactions between adults and students, and hands-on exploration that draws children to explore science and mathematics," said SJSA kindergarten teacher Kathy Robbins.
"Because outdoor education is driven by student interest, it engages all students, particularly higher-energy students. Boys in particular excel when they can move as they learn."
Kindergartners will spend a minimum of two hours each school day in the fresh air, supervised by school personnel and parent volunteers who have completed criminal background checks.
Every element of the kindergarten curriculum will be taught outside against the backdrop of the beautiful Fraser Valley mountains, said Robbins, as the children roam the spacious school grounds, nearby Fishtrap Creek and Discovery Trail, and further afield.
"Every day the students will go outside in our nearby parks. We will start small with 100-metre field trips and build in routines and stamina for trips farther away. Oral language is the foundation of literacy, and children will have many opportunities to explore and closely examine nature while developing vocabulary.
"Science, social studies, and mathematics can all be taught as we explore the world around us, and the fine arts such as music and dance happen so spontaneously with young children outside. And where better to learn about God than outside in creation?"
The pastors of both St. James and St. Ann's Parishes are pleased with the plans.
"Our school philosophy is to form a whole and harmoniously integrated person, following our Catholic heritage. With Jesus Christ as our centre, parents, teachers, and parishioners work closely together in love and prayer to create a joyous and challenging place of learning," said Father George Varghese Edattukaran, pastor of St. James Parish. Outdoor education can only help to achieve this, he said.
Father James Hughes, pastor of St. Ann's, said the new outdoor kindergarten program is a tremendous opportunity for children. "A good Catholic education is far more than simply studying a subject with religion; it is about creating an environment of Catholic Christian faith for our students.
"The school community assists parents, the primary educators of children, in educating children intellectually, socially, and spiritually. Our Catholic formation then is not simply restricted to the home and the classroom, but includes the world and what it can provide as insight about God."
Principal Sask anticipates the new outdoor kindergarten will be very popular.
"We believe that when parents are made aware of the research behind this program as well as the rationale for doing it, they will want their children in the program. This is a real hands-on learning experience for children, whose interests will be met while following the B.C. Curriculum that is adapted to an outdoor context."
And while some parents may worry that being outside in inclement weather may mean more sniffles and colds, evidence from outdoor schools shows the opposite: children learning outside have fewer sick days than their classmates who are kept indoors for learning.
"There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. We will go out every day, rain or snow or sun. We are hoping to secure some funding to get proper rain gear for the children," said Robbins.
The veteran teacher, who has a personal love for the outdoors, is taking special training from WildBC, a program of the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation and the provincial Ministry of Environment that offers professional programs and resources for environmental education. She expects to enjoy the new program as much as the children.
"I am very excited to be part of an outdoor kindergarten program, as I am a keen walker and explorer. I expect to learn as much or more than the children every day as we follow their interests."