By LeRae Haynes –
There are wonderful changes afoot with StrongStart in the Williams Lake area, with more nature emphasis and wilderness immersion. More children have more opportunities to love and enjoy the outdoors, expanding their horizons and enriching their lives.
StrongStart, a free, play-based drop-in program for parents and little ones, is held in elementary schools throughout the school district. It gives parents and youngsters the opportunity to become familiar and comfortable in a school setting, enjoying stories, games, and crafts with an early childhood educator (ECE). And now, it has an increased emphasis on learning in nature.
Naomi Weil has been running StrongStart as an early childhood educator (ECE) at Mountview Elementary School for eight years, and is now moving to Marie Sharpe. Former Marie Sharpe StrongStart co-ordinator Tanya Johnson is moving to Scout Island as the nature kindergarten teacher.
“I love the outdoor piece; Marie Sharpe has the Wild School BC program, and outdoor learning and play space learning work really well together,” says Weil.
She also worked at Scout Island Nature Kindergarten as a noon supervisor and loves the hands-on outdoor education experience.
The move to Marie Sharpe is a natural one for Weil, who will get to enjoy interaction with the nature kindergarten class when they come to Marie Sharpe once a week to use the gym and library, and enjoy some buddy reading, using the StrongStart classroom as their home base.
“The outdoor focus in education is getting stronger and stronger,” she explains, adding that Forest Fridays go very well at Mountview Elementary School, and are also taking place at Cataline Elementary School.
A goal is for StrongStarts to connect as groups, and visit places like the River Valley Trail.
“Being outdoors has such a positive impact on families,” says Weil. “People are busier, and kids have more organized events. We’re seeing the benefits of how easy and inexpensive it is to be outside – the physical and cognitive aspects – and building relationships between adults and children. There’s a great deal of research on the overall health aspect of it.”
“Kids are naturally curious and love to explore and try new things, and outdoors they really learn to work together. It’s great for their social skills and there is lots of team work—so natural when kids are outdoors.”
She is excited about the outdoor classroom at Marie Sharpe that Tanya Johnson put together. “We’ll continue with the Fresh Air Friday program—Tanya planted the seed and I get to grow with it,” she adds.
“Moving to Marie Sharpe is a wonderful adventure for me: we’ll have some returning kids and families, and some new ones. The outdoor classroom is also used by other teachers at Marie Sharpe, and Strong Start will use it more as time goes on; Fresh Air Friday is just a start!”
She explained that StrongStart is play-based, and follows the children’s lead: what they’re curious about and what they want to learn.
It offers a high quality early learning opportunity to families with young children that encourages problem-solving skills, self-esteem building practices, and the social skills that will help them successfully manage in school and lay a foundation for life-long learning.
This program recognizes that the parent is the first and most important teacher in a child’s life. Increased involvement in their child’s education contributes to success and teaches family literacy and the importance of a family-involved education.
The StrongStart Early Learning Centres are funded and supported by the Ministry of Education and School District No. 27. They are available at Cataline, Marie Sharpe, Mountview, 150 Mile, Horsefly, and Big Lake Elementary Schools, and at 100 Mile, Forest Grove, Horse Lake, Lac La Hache, and Mile 108 Elementary Schools, and Kindergym.
She said it’s so positive for kids in StrongStart to become familiar with a school. “We all work to create a comfortable environment for parents and kids alike,” says Weil. “They discover that school isn’t daunting. We want children and parents to all feel good about being at school, and to have fun. It’s a real confidence booster.”
“The kids are the leaders,” Weil continues.“There’s so much available for them in nature: climbing, walking on moss, and looking for holes or looking for sticks. When you revisit the forest each week you build on it. One day we saw two deer, and the next time it went to, ‘Will they be here today? Where are they? Can we find some tracks?’”
Weil began with StrongStart as a sub at Cataline, when it was the only one in town.
“I really embrace the whole idea of working with families, and it’s amazing how many great people you meet. They’re the best part—the kids.
“I love being part of their very first school experience” she says. “That’s pretty awesome. The parents are the reason for the program’s success. I’m just a facilitator providing the space and opportunity—the parents are the greatest influence for the kids. It’s all them.
“I see so many face-to-face moments between parents and children that are inspiring and beautiful. That’s the reason I’m here. Add nature to the equation and it’s even better. Who wouldn’t like that?”
For more information about StrongStart throughout School District #27, visit www.sd27.bc.ca/programs/early-learning-programs/strongstart/
LeRae Haynes is a freelance writer, song writer, community co-ordinator for Success by 6, member of Perfect Match dance band, and instigator of lots of music with kids.