Growing up in industrial Hamilton, Ontario, Cara Agro didn’t have much in the way of green space close to home. Years later, the early childhood educator is more than making up for her past nature deficit as a facilitator for Fresh Air Learning, a local charitable organization that runs forest schools for Metro Vancouver children between the ages of three and 12.
Every week between September and June, Agro meets three classes, each composed of six or seven preschool-aged kids, at Pacific Spirit Regional Park and leads them to off-trail sites in the woods. She told the Georgia Straight the kids sing songs, climb trees, build shelters, play with “mud kitchens”, go on treasure hunts, and learn about edible plants during sessions lasting two or two-and-a-half hours.
“I definitely felt a deep yearning to be in natural spaces when I was a child,” Agro said, seated on a bench facing Trout Lake in John Hendry Park. “I can’t believe that now I get paid to do this. I get paid to go out into the forest and to play with kids and to learn about things and to experience the natural world on a regular basis.”
On Saturday (April 18), Agro and Allison Prime of Soaring Eagle Nature School, which offers nature-based learning programs for youth and adults, are inviting families to join them at Pacific Spirit for an afternoon of fun in the forest. It’s one of more than 40 free events being held as part of the first Wild About Vancouver Outdoor Education Festival.
Running from Thursday (April 16) to Earth Day (April 22), WAV aims to highlight outdoor- and experiential-learning programs in and around the city. Hartley Banack, founder of WAV and chair of its steering committee, told the Straight he hopes the festival will become an annual event.
According to Banack, outdoor education has traditionally been associated with adventure education, which often sees students go to remote areas for activities such as hiking, climbing, and kayaking. These days, he explained, outdoor education is more likely to take place locally and simply involve learning outside.
Starting in the mid 1990s, there was a “significant decrease” in outdoor-education programs at public schools in southwestern British Columbia due to fiscal belt-tightening, Banack noted. Since 2008, forest schools and nature kindergartens have been on the rise due to demand from parents, many of whom are paying to send their kids to private outdoor-learning programs.
“Because we’ve shifted away from adventure education to local outdoor education, the cost is that much lower,” Banack, who is a lecturer in the University of British Columbia’s faculty of education, said during a walk around Trout Lake. “So schools are seeing this as a viable opportunity, as opposed to what was once viewed as a liability and expense.”
In Vancouver, the Take a Hike senior alternative program at John Oliver secondary school, the Streetfront junior alternative program at Britannia secondary school, and the TREK Grade 10 enrichment program at Prince of Wales secondary school incorporate outdoor recreation into their curricula. The Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows school district opened an environmental school in 2011.
Banack pointed out that research shows spending time outdoors offers benefits for health, well-being, and academic performance. He wants to show teachers there are a variety of ways they can move their English, math, and social-studies lessons outside.
“I’m not aiming at creating people who can get up to the top of Everest or even do bigger hikes,” Banack said. “What we really want to see is the average teacher taking their students outdoors more frequently.”
According to Agro, Fresh Air Learning offers kids the opportunity to “get up close and personal” with nature, form a relationship with their local environment, and see how an ecosystem changes over the course of a year. Agro, who also runs the Out and About Adventures early learning program at Trout Lake Community Centre, hopes that kids who experience outdoor education will grow into adults who “stand up” for the environment.
“It just makes you feel good when you’re outdoors a lot, and it’s something that we forget a lot when we live in the city,” Agro said. “That is a really empowering thing, and it’s something that’s almost good for the soul. So I hope that they get that from the program and they take that to heart, and then that’s something that can grow with them as they grow into adults.”
The Greater Vancouver Orienteering Club, Hives for Humanity, Jericho Sailing Centre Association, Northwest Wildlife Preservation Society, Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance, Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, and Stanley Park Ecology Society are among the organizations hosting WAV events.
On Saturday, Katrina Sterba will welcome WAV attendees to the Environmental Youth Alliance’s garden, part of the Cottonwood Community Garden in Strathcona. Sterba, the coordinator of EYA’s community-nursery, urban-seeds, and volunteer programs, told the Straight that people who show up will get to use garden tools and learn about organic growing in small spaces.
EYA has a Growing Kids program that assists several Vancouver schools each year with building and maintaining food gardens. This year, according to Sterba, the local charity will show students at Britannia and Windermere secondary schools how to save the seeds of crops.
“We live in a time when people are really disconnected with what’s going on in our natural world and don’t really have a sense for how they are part of the ecosystem,” Sterba said in the youth garden after preparing some beds for planting. “Simply just by providing opportunities for people to get their hands dirty and be in a small urban natural environment, the magic inherently happens.”
The Wild About Vancouver Outdoor Education Festival takes place at various locations between Thursday (April 16) and Wednesday (April 22). For a list of events, see www.wildaboutvancouver.com.