By Jennifer Pinarski – The Star
Five school-age children are hopping across tree stumps and thick branches as part of an obstacle course — but it’s not a phys ed class. Another group of children have built a teeter-totter out of a wide board and a log — but it’s not recess. They’re all wearing running shoes, their jeans mud-streaked and hair wind blown — but it’s not summer camp.
It’s just a typical day for students enrolled in Maple Ridge, B.C.’s Environmental School Project, where math, science, literacy — and physical literacy — are learned in a revolutionary new way. The students here take all of their classes outdoors, because in this public school there are no classrooms.
A partnership between Simon Fraser University, School District 42 Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows, and several other community groups in the mountainside city, the Environmental School launched in 2011 and recently expanded from a Kindergarten to Grade 7 program to include Grade 12.
Unlike traditional schools where the learning takes place in a classroom with students dutifully seated at desks, learning at the Environmental School is place-based, meaning that lessons are learned from the surroundings, whether it’s in the woods, at the riverside next to salmon spawning grounds, or in the wetlands.
Craig Cerhit was skeptical at first. Cerhit, a documentary filmmaker, enrolled his son, Nate, in the program as a kindergarten student. His son is now in Grade 4, and Cerhit has become firm believer in the benefits of taking education outdoors.
So much so that he spent two years documenting the daily lives of the staff and students for his film Found in the Forest.
“We spent the first couple of months of school at a beautiful park located next to a river. And the thing that I let go of immediately was that the whole idea that they weren’t in a classroom and sitting in chairs. Being outside in the natural world is full of stimuli and it’s relaxing,” Cerhit shared in his 2015 TEDxSFU talk last November.
“It proved to me to be an amazing place to learn in. It calmed everyone down,” he remarked.