Originally appears in the Spring 2014 issue
Good morning dear Earth, Good morning dear sun,
Good morning to the trees, and the flowers everywhere.
Good morning dear beasts, and the birds in the trees
Good morning to you and good morning to me.
Down is the Earth, up is the sky,
Here are my friends and here am I!
SO BEGINS THE DAY with the four- and five-year olds in The Courtyard, the new outdoor education facility for some of the kindergarteners at Givins-Shaw Junior Public School in Toronto. Arrival time segues into free play, which results in snail hunting, fort building, plant documentation, and water flow experiments in the sand pit. Today, after morning song and the daily weather report, the children are off to the local park to watch birds, and gather materials for their own attempts at nest building. More mud ensues.
Far from the suburbs, Givins-Shaw is a small neighbourhood school in a very urban environment. It is nestled only one block from a major intersection, in a community that is seeing intense revitalization and demand due to its proximity to the city center. And while the students are hunting snails and building birds’ nests, the concrete skyscrapers of Canada’s largest city are a mere ten-minute public transit ride away.
The children spend the vast majority of their school day outside in a program that is dominated by guided inquiry. Mornings are generally spent in The Courtyard, and the first half of the afternoons in a playground reserved for and shared with another class of kindergarteners. Facilitated by the educators, the students’ natural curiosity drives their learning process, and the overarching topics are integrated across the array of subject areas. One of many possible examples to illustrate is trees. In their first weeks, the children’s explorations led them to discover a tree marked for removal. Guided discussion revealed a host of questions, and trees spontaneously became the extended focus for a time. There were tree journals, tree stories, “My Favourite Tree” presentations, of course tree science, but also plant and tree dramas, and tree art festooned the hallways of the school. Later that year it was birds: Again there was art and language and science, even birds’ egg manipulatives in math (artificial of course!). The children learned to identify birds by sight and call. The days a city hawk hunted the neighbourhood, or a duck spontaneously came to visit, were fantastically memorable teachable moments. From the parent’s perspective, the culmination was the children’s much beloved performance of their songs about birds at the annual spring fundraiser. Fueled by the children’s natural curiosity, the outdoor-centered guided inquiry facilitates engagement not only with the necessary array of academic subjects, but also with the natural world in the heart of the city they are intrinsically a part of.
When asked about the development of this new program, its founder Kim MacIntyre—a kindergarten teacher for twenty-five years—shrugs humbly: “My kids have always spent more time outside. It just seemed right.” An avid wilderness camper and hiker, when full-day kindergarten began to be implemented across her part of Canada, Kim knew she wanted to merge her passion for the outdoors with her full-time job.
Of course that development and implementation has not been without challenges. Though The Courtyard is a somewhat convenient and available space—sizable, artistically fenced, with a few trees and built-in benches—its transformation into and use as a full-time outdoor classroom has been problematic. There was no permanently installed running water, or hard-wired communication with the school office. About a quarter of The Courtyard is asphalt, and there is almost no storage space–certainly not for 20 plus children’s weather gear. Plus, the bathrooms couldn’t be further away: a significant factor for the age group. And while the Ministry of Education allows for the necessity of teachers’ preparation time, the local board provides it on an irregular schedule. This often resulted in interrupted outdoor time and multiple transitions, another significant factor for the age group, especially in inclement weather. Getting over twenty four- and five-year-olds changed from their outdoor to indoor clothes so they can attend a class inside is no small task, and it sometimes happened several times a day.
For readers living in warmer climes who might wonder how the program is affected by a Canadian winter, the children and families are well-versed in the necessity of maintaining a full array of cold-weather gear. While they try to keep its use to a minimum, they have the luxury of a fully-equipped indoor classroom to retreat to in the severest of conditions.
Givins-Shaw is part of a massive public school board in Canada’s largest city, where the competition for funds is fierce. In order to implement the program, grants had to be applied for, networks strained, donations of time, effort and goods aggressively solicited. In the end, the program’s success was the result of a spontaneous synergy of multiple elements.
Kim’s active urban-environmental lifestyle ramped up many steps as it became a family hobby to seek out used materials for re-purposing. As a senior teacher, Kim has an extensive network with the community, and the principal has also been fantastically supportive. A small army of volunteers—staff, friends and families of the school, and their partners—put in many hours on many tasks. Furniture had to be weatherproofed for continuous outdoor use, stumps for seating transported, running water installed.
Early on, a generous parent-contractor donated a truckload of sand to create a sand play centre in The Courtyard, but it was inadvertently dumped at the exact wrong end of the schoolyard. The volunteer army came to bear again armed with an array of borrowed shovels and wheelbarrows to spend the day hauling sand to its proper location. Toronto’s extensive park and public transit systems have also played important roles: One of the largest parks in the city is within walking distance, and the students regularly use public transit for day trips to others. Each of these ingredients has been essential.
Given the fantasy of unlimited time and resources any educator could probably go on at some length about what they’d love to have in their program. Kimberly MacIntyre is no exception: “Nature itself provides so much in terms of learning experiences, but if I had my ideal space it would be…actual forest. Also the money to purchase class sets of good magnifying glasses, binoculars, and gardening and other tools would be lovely. All said, I really like finding and using previously used materials. Although time consuming it’s an environmentally-friendly solution that also provides an appropriate example to my students.”
Now in its second year, the full-day outdoor education kindergarten program at Givins-Shaw is still under development, but is undoubtedly an ongoing success that can function as inspiration to other educators. We all face challenges of space and funding. We will all need to put in extra hours, and mobilize extensive networks of support. And to make it happen we will likely all end up scrounging materials and resources. The point still stands: If it can be done at a small neighbourhood public school, in an intensely urban environment, then it can be done almost anywhere.
To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.
Mark DeBoer is an Occasional Teacher with the Toronto District School Board with a specialty in environmental and sustainability education. He thanks his son, “Ms. Mac,” and Hilary Inwood.