By Venta Rutkauskas –

Research in education and child development has prompted a wave of publicity for nature-based and forest schools. Experts agree that children thrive in the outdoors, while the benefits attached are academic, social, and personal. Children who learn in the outdoors generally have decreased anxiety and hyper-activity, increased self-confidence, and stronger, healthier bodies. These programs meet curriculum goals in creative and seasonal ways, adding a love and keen perception of the natural world to the child’s toolkit.

Nature kindergarten students at Scout Island in fall 2018. Photo: Frances McCoubrey

Williams Lake is home to the Cariboo’s first nature kindergarten, now in its third year at the Scout Island Nature Centre. The program balances indoor/outdoor time, offering the students varied learning environments. Marie Sharpe Elementary is the host school, while the Nature K indoor classroom resides in the bottom floor of the Nature Centre. Children visit Marie Sharpe one afternoon per week, to take part in Buddy Reading, use the library, learn First Nations culture, attend special events, and feel a part of a larger school community.

Each morning, most students arrive by bus from Marie Sharpe, and are greeted by their instructors, teacher Kirsten Hamm, and early childhood educator, Tanya Johnson. Students spend the first half of the morning in their outdoor learning groups. This is the time when they work on projects, explore the local environment, and have a ton of fun. They take their snack indoors, after which they join in circle time. The indoor classroom has math and literacy centres, arts and crafts, and an extensive library. After lunch, the students will share time between the indoors and outdoors again.

How do you know if Nature K is a good fit for your family? There are several things to consider:

Does your child like spending extended periods of time outdoors in all weather conditions?

Can your child respond to “Stop”?

Are you able to arrange for your child to have appropriate clothing for all weather conditions?

Dedicated instructors guide the program, balancing the BC curriculum with risk-taking play and exploration. Johnson explains, “It is incredibly inspiring to be part of a traditional learning environment. Having the land be the teacher, using all our senses, and combining movement in our learning provides an authentic, real-life, hands-on experience that not only deepens our understanding of the natural world but is a true reflection of BC’s new curriculum.”

Nature kindergarten students at Scout Island in fall 2018. Photo: Frances McCoubrey

Nature K encourages supervised rough and tumble play and risky play, both of which develop self-regulation, set safe boundaries, and problem solving.

Choosing nature kindergarten for your child does entail a few extra steps for registration. To register for the 2019/2020 year, you’ll have to attend one of the mandatory information sessions held at Scout Island Nature Centre at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, January 15 and Marie Sharpe Elementary School on Thursday January 17, 2019. These sessions are helpful in outlining the program and allow you to meet the instructors and discover if this is a good fit for you and your child. Applications will be made available to you there.

Second, unless you happen to fall in the Marie Sharpe catchment area, ‘school of choice’ forms are needed and will be provided at both sessions. These will need to be signed and dated by your local school in your home catchment. If there is a lot of demand for Nature K, then having these done as soon as registration opens helps secure your child’s spot (first come, first served). Once the applications are in, you will receive confirmation from the school district in the spring.

From a parent’s perspective, there is something that sits right with me when the children hike up to their outdoor learning classroom, giggling, sweeping up leaves, and noticing the changes in their local trees and ecosystem each day. They have room to move, stretch, and be themselves, all while the instructors encourage focus, alertness, and order. The children are forming a team out there, each becoming aware of their peers’ absence, working together on projects; even competitive activities are engaged in with good-natured attitudes. My daughter is forging adventurous and spirited relationships with her new friends.

For more information, visit, or call Marie Sharpe Elementary at (250) 392-4104.

Venta Rutkauskas is a writer and  healer who has made her home in the beautiful Cariboo for over a decade. Her work involves the arts and the ways nature intersects with soul.


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