By Frances McCoubrey –
What happens when you foster an early diet of wilderness, community connections, and rural living?
After 15 years of living in other urban and rural areas, moving back to the community that raised me has helped me realize the richness of our seemingly small, resource-supported community. I’ve begun to realize how the experiences of my time away has made minor shifts in how I approach life, and perceive and understand the world. It has also become apparent how much of what I believe and who I am was set in motion by the experiences, landscapes, and community that supported me for the first 17 years of my life. Our identities are a result of the people, organizations, and systems we are exposed to in our early lives.
Our community has the ideal conditions for good child development; over the last three years I have immersed myself in research that shows children rely on opportunities to engage in risky (not hazardous) play when building confidence in themselves, realizing that they can be agents of change in their life. One of the best places to do this kind of play is in nature, which we have in abundance.
Outdoor schools in Germany, Norway, and other parts of Europe encourage certain types of risk-taking in children. This includes things like recognizing most children, if given the opportunity, can tell when something is too dangerous for them as early as age four or five. They know how high in a tree they are comfortable climbing, whether or not they want to wrestle (rough and tumble play), climb up rocky outcrops, explore near water, or work with fire and sharp tools like knives. There are preschools in Norway where children are given the verbal support to figure out how to climb or come down from a tree, use knives safely, and navigate small rocky outcrops. Our community continues to encourage activities like these, including spending hours in the acres of our backyards roaming semi-freely and building forts, trekking through the marsh at Educo, ripping down the 100s of kilometers of mountain bike trails or over the jumps in Boitanio Park. Then there are the 1000s of acres of wild, glacier topped mountains in the Chilcotin and kilometers of rivers and waterways weaving between our homes and communities.
These activities, whether directed during class time or during the after school unstructured play time, are what research has shown are so influential in reducing anxiety, ADHD symptoms, and depression. In addition to the mountains, rivers, and bike trails, we also have perfectly situated schools for taking advantage of outdoor learning. Most of our schools, public, and private, have fairly natural forests or meadows connected to them, others are a short five-minute walk from the Williams Creek River Valley, Borland Creek, or Centennial Park in 100 Mile. This is so important and something to consider when looking at how we develop and support our community agencies. Many of our fellow BCers don’t have access to this kind of natural space; in urban communities, the most biodiverse and wild areas are in the neighborhoods of the privileged—those who can afford the property taxes to live near them.
In addition to knowing the impact time in nature has on mental health for adults and children, we also know it improves children’s cognitive abilities, so their ability to learn. Research has shown this is especially so for the most vulnerable children, those with severe cases of mental illness or those who experience neglect, abuse, and other forms of trauma. The most interesting result I’ve heard lately is that areas with higher biodiversity have the biggest impact—so when you have a wider variety of types of plants and animals in a natural area, the healing benefits are bigger. This is all in addition to the obvious benefits to children’s physical health, something that is often forgotten when kids are told to stay inside because it is too cold, wet, slippery, animal ridden, hot, or just simply dangerous.
As I’ve been reading the articles outlining the research mentioned above, looking for information to use in my thesis, I keep thinking about how lucky I was to grow up in a community that let me experience many of the activities these articles are now showing to be so important. In our community, we have incredible resources to support the schools and students accessing natural space. This includes the various organizations that specialize in connecting children with nature and outdoor recreation like the Gavin Lake Forest Education Society, Scout Island Nature House, Williams Lake Field Naturalists, Educo Adventure Camp, and the high school outdoors clubs. The non-profit organizations mentioned are made up of community members who each year continue to donate 100s of hours, their expertise, and financial resources to the healthy development of our community’s children. This donation of time wouldn’t be as effective, though, if it weren’t for the foresight of our schools’ administrators and teachers who have welcomed and fostered partnerships with these organizations. Thanks to them, especially the Williams Lake Field Naturalists, our school district now boasts one of the province’s first four season Nature Kindergartens.
A dedicated teacher with the support of the Field Naturalists and a few individuals at Columneetza are also responsible for creating the grade 7 Outdoor Education Academy, which will enter its fourth year next September. This program stands in a field of its own in the province as it was designed to be accessible to all students in the district, not just those with the highest grade point averages or who’s families can afford to pay for it. Programs like these in other communities require students to pay fees of up to $1000 per student where ours is supported by student fundraising, donations, and a $100 fee covered by the district for those who can’t afford it. In addition to these two amazing programs, the senior high school now boasts a university style course where students complete an independent studies project on something they choose that incorporates stewardship and a current natural history topic. These students are supported by volunteers in our community who are foresters, linguists, retired biologists, and other professionals. We also have the grade 6 camp at Gavin Lake that is free for all grade 6 classes. Students spend several nights at Gavin Lake learning archery, fresh water ecology, and other skills like canoeing.
Our most recent community health profile indicates we have more Kindergarten students than the provincial average entering school vulnerable to social, emotional, and cognitive challenges. Only 35 per cent of grade 7s are getting the recommended physical activity for someone their age and 45 per cent of children report mental health challenges, especially related to depression. With these figures in mind, these programs are crucial. Nature – one of the resources effective at assisting with treatment of these issues – is right outside our doorstep and we need to ensure access to it remains available to us.
Frances McCoubrey’s career as an educator in outdoor classrooms started in 1988 when her grade 7 teacher (who was also her dad) took her class to Borland Creek to learn about the role of soil in ecosystems. She built on this experience in her university classes at Guelph and UBC and then while working for agencies such as Metro Vancouver Parks and Parks Canada.