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Teacher and vice-principal Keri Stanger sits in a circle outside with her kindergarten and Grade 1 students at East Kensington Elementary's EKOLogy program.
It's been just over a year since the outdoor education-focused EKOLogy program at East Kensington Elementary officially began, and already the program's popularity has doubled.
When the program started, the rural Surrey school had 25 students in total. Now, there are 55 primary students enrolled in two kindergarten/Grade 1 classes taught by Keri Stanger and Cheryl Leclerc, and one Grade 2–4 class taught by Alison Leslie.
Vice-principal and teacher Keri Stanger says the boost is largely due to word of mouth.
"It's a different way of learning and it's a community feel," she explains. "A lot of the new people came in and said they heard about the school from a parent who said their child really loved it."
Having a new wetland on site to learn from is just one unique feature of the EKOLogy (which stands for East Kensington Outdoor Learning) program. In addition to putting place-based outdoor education first, the program has a higher adult to child ratio than mainstream schools.
"We're in a time where kids don't get that personal relationship," Leclerc says. "It's so important for them to have an adult that cares about them and that they know that."
New student Grace just started at East Kensington this fall.
"My favourite things are learning about the leaves and the animals, more than everything else," she says. "I like the wetland. We do mindful moments and one day we thought of what we're thankful for and after that we got some free time."
Keaton has been at the school since the program began.
"You get to experience being more social than just technology," he says. "My favourite thing is when we can go to the park up the hill because we can exercise our bodies."
The students at East Kensington spend two hours of instructional time a day outside, in addition to lunch and recess. For them, even inclement weather is a delight and a learning opportunity, and not a reason to stay indoors.
"In my preschool on rainy days we stayed inside, but on rainy days here we get to go outside!" exclaims Grade 1 student Dalton excitedly.
The program also focuses on risky play more than mainstream schools, which is important for social development skills. Stanger says she has noticed students becoming more attuned to each other's moods and feelings since expanding the classroom to outdoors.
"They are way more respectful of people's needs, and in a way that I just don't think you have when you're in a classroom. We're out there with sticks and mud and dirt and giant logs and you're coming to agreement about how to use planks and tires to make a cool jumping off point with large loose parts, for example," Stanger explains. "Even just with our river – a bit of a puddle, and the kids decide they need to work together to make a river. And they come to that agreement themselves, with none of my input."
Such learning – with sticks and mud and dirt – aligns with the new inquiry-based B.C. curriculum and core competencies.
"Even in the science curriculum, asking questions, following up on your curiosity, observing and noticing changes, that's just built in when you're outside," says Stanger. "Phenomena like fog, you can talk about it in the classroom but when you're actually living it and breathing it, it just comes to life and it's more real."
School staff hope programs like this can be adapted to suit more schools, helping students become more environmentally conscious and stewards of the land.
"I'm really proud of the work that we're doing here because I think we're raising competent children that can go outside and play and be imaginative, and they're not obsessed with going indoors and having that screen time." says Leclerc. "I think that is what is great for parents and why they bring their kids here, because they want them to have the experiences that we had playing freely in our neighbourhoods growing up."
By networking with other educators in the Lower Mainland, Stanger hopes to get others excited about implementing outdoor learning in their own schools.
"I'd like to get teachers to see that it can work, and that it is actually way less work than you imagine. You just need the right clothing and the right mindset."
To find out more about the EKOLogy program, check out their website, Twitter, or Keri Stanger's blog.
~Story and photos by Laura Johnston