Saplings Outdoor Program is Fostering Our Children’s Sense of Wonder for the Natural World
By Lorrie Holmes
Getting outdoors with our kids is a theme that I decided upon many weeks ago when focusing on Back To School recommendations for our families. It felt like an obvious choice to consider around social distancing. It wasn’t until I arranged to spend an afternoon joining in one of the forest camps offered by Saplings Outdoor Program that I was able to see for myself just how much is involved in such a program. This reaches far past the safety of taking learning outside while we are all wanting to have our own space, and delves deep into the areas of mindfulness, education, and overall health of each child who is lucky enough to participate.
Saplings Outdoor Program is located on Vancouver’s breathtaking North Shore. On this particular day, forest camp was in session at Douglas Woodward Park in West Vancouver. What an eye opener this was for me to witness how kids naturally self regulate, explore, and learn through play in the outdoors. Heather Fraser, Owner and Forest Educator, was there to greet me at the entrance, where I followed her and a small group of children into the woods. Off we went along a trail, then one by one, we climbed up onto a fallen tree, and crossed it to the other side. This is where we met up with the rest of the group who were busily exploring their surroundings around the base camp which was set up here for the day.
The goal of my program is not to educate children about nature, but to learn within it. Through play, exploration, and wonderment, learning about nature has become a natural byproduct of the program.Heather Fraser, Owner/Forest Educator
Q & A with Heather Fraser, Owner & Forest Educator, and TK Hannah, Manager and Forest Educator at Saplings Outdoor Program
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: I love what I experienced in your program today – thank you for inviting me to join in. It was so much fun to spend a good part of the day outdoors with you at Douglas Woodward Park – what a beautiful spot. During this time of Covid, when we are all trying to keep our distance, do you feel this has shifted the way families are looking at outdoor programs in your opinion?
HEATHER: Our program has not really changed throughout this since outdoor play has always been key to our program.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: Do you feel that families are starting to recognize more benefits to registering their kids in an outdoor program with what’s going on around us?
HEATHER: I don’t know if people really recognize the benefits right now. What I’m seeing is more of a mindset that our kids need to be outside – that it’s the best place for us to be. Having said that, what I’ve also noticed this summer during our camps is that we’ve had a lot of children who haven’t been involved in our programs before, where these parents are saying this is all super awesome. And many inquiries have taken place about if we run after school programs and can their kids join in. So, within the general population of families who have tried this out this summer, it feels like these people are more open to thinking, why not? Why not go outside. Why not bring our children outside. Before I think there were a lot of worries around this. I think that now that they’ve come into these programs, they are feeling more confident about the worries they may have come in with.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: I would imagine that safety around this would be a big concern for parents with young children. How do you keep these kids safe in the forest?
TK HANNAH: In any of our programs, on our first day, we have a lot of safety discussions and we follow through with all of this. What also happens during this process is the children will create their own community standards and for this reason, we love to make the rules with them. We use a lot of democracy in our program, and this includes us encouraging the children to be actively involved.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: How do you get the children involved?
TK HANNAH: Usually we’ll bring a piece of paper into the woods and we’ll say, “What do you think our rules should be?” Usually, they’ll come up with some pretty strict rules and we’ll have to scale them back, but our guidelines always end up falling within these three categories:
NUMBER ONE – RESPECTING OURSELVES
NUMBER TWO – RESPECTING EACH OTHER
NUMBER THREE – RESPECTING NATURE
TK HANNAH CONT’D: By setting this up, the children have that language to remind each other of the rules. And also, when we say something like, “We have this rule that we may be breaking, like maybe we were not being respectful to this person or however we are wanting to word this, the children often will respond with something like, “Oh, you’re right.” And this way, it becomes OUR RULE and not MY RULE. This is how they take ownership of it all.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: How do you keep them safe when they want to wander into the woods?
TK HANNAH: So usually in the first few weeks of our program, we often use cones. When doing this, we have the children put the cones down for us and we’ll make ‘magic walls’ and the children will know those boundaries. We will talk about how this looks different than a classroom and how there aren’t any walls out here, so we need to make our magic walls. After awhile though, with the things we do consistently in our program, like singing songs like ‘Birdie, Birdie, where are you?’, the children will sing it back to me, or they will pop their heads up so I can see them. We will talk about how we need to see and hear each other at all times, and they are fairly good with this. Later on, we will no longer need to use the cones because the children will begin to know the boundaries.
KIDS NEWS AND REVIEWS: Taking all this in, I see a tremendous opportunity for kids to practice an extra level of self regulation just through these safety practices alone that other kids might not necessary get to practice in a typical classroom setting. What are your thoughts on this. This also seems to be something that kids might be missing today as we spend so much more time inside than we did in past generations.
HEATHER: Yes. There is a tremendous amount of learning that takes place through this component alone. One of the things I have noticed too which is really interesting is when a parent comments that their child is a ‘runner’. Often though, when you get these children out into the forest, they don’t run. I think it’s because the forest is a little bit scary; it’s a little bit big, so the children want to be close to you. They want to learn boundaries, and it’s nice because we give them the opportunity to build those boundaries and children will often build them a lot smaller then we would. One of us teachers might say something like, “Okay, where do you think is a safe place for us? Where do you think we should put our classroom walls?” The children will often put them a little closer than we would. As we get to know the children and they get to know us, then they’ll gradually expand these walls a little more.
KIDS NEWS AND REVIEWS: Moving past the whole safety aspect which sounds very well thought out and practiced by all, can you tell us about how Saplings all began.
HEATHER: Saplings began in 2012 as a place where my own kids could go to experience the outdoors in a safe and enjoyable way. I started off one day a week with 10 children and we have grown to over 200 children with multiple programs – from full day preschool to school-aged programs and camps. As of this September, we have opened the doors to our very own licensed Nature School for kids from Kindergarten to Grade Three! All of our programs are forest based with the goal being to foster each child’s love for nature, and we are thrilled to have created a space where children can explore and play within the natural world.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: I’m so thrilled to have been able to experience your program first-hand today. It’s amazing actually, and there is far more to it than I originally anticipated as I prepared to spend a few hours in the forest with your group. As an early learning reporter who has worked in many different learning environments, I am impressed with how much you have brought into this program. What I see is how you have taken the model of Early Childhood Education and its nurturing and playful components designed to support the whole child, and applied this to older kids as well, who in my opinion, still require this level of support to thrive in both education and childcare environments. You have accomplished that for all ages of kids registered in your programs. This truly is unique. Aside from all the guiding and caring that takes place here and an obvious Reggio-inspired quality to your inquiry based teaching, can you tell us what the kids are learning about in your program.
HEATHER: Thanks! Yeah, well, what aren’t they learning! The spontaneity of learning that can happen outside is enormous. We are pretty blessed that we have these amazing experiences and from that, we can draw all sorts of learning, and we do this through what we discover and what we experience, and what we question and investigate on our own and in groups if we choose to do so. We can find literacy in nature. We can find science and math. Let’s look at the weather as an example – being able to measure our mud puddles. How deep are they? How have they changed? Of course, we also do puddle play! We are open for all seasons so children here are able to EXPERIENCE how the seasons change. To understand what this means for them IN THEIR ENVIRONMENT – this is huge!
TK HANNAH: Expanding upon what Heather was saying, I think projects are also a big part of what we do here as we follow the children’s interests in our teaching. Usually it is about the world around them because that is what the children are exploring at that age. So when we are seeing their interests about anything, we can use this opportunity to talk to them about math and many other concepts that they are interested in learning about at that particular time. I have a great example for you actually. We had a child that came in with an apple one day and he was very excited about this apple that he had picked. As he began to eat it, he discovered its seeds and became curious about them. This lead to him asking us questions about the seeds and so we decided to plant them since he wanted to see what would happen. When we planted these seeds, we had little sprouts growing and this brought out the curiosity of other children who also started to guess about what these sprouts were. They would say things like, “It’s going to be a Maple Tree!” or, “No! It’s going to grow into a big apple!” or… “No! It’s going to grow into a tree and then apples next.” So, we noted down all their theories and they drew a lot of pictures of what they supposed was going to happen. And so they were making their own predictions. And as part of their documentation, they were including pictures from where they would draw their thoughts on paper. This meant they were also practicing their art and communication skills. And as the sprouts continued to grow, we would bring in stories and share them outside. We would use loose parts of nature and make wood cookies with sticks, and also, one girl created a beautiful depiction of a tree that we predicted would grow from these sprouts and then added little rocks to represent the apples that we hoped would grow next. As the teachers, our approach was to watch and follow the ways in which the children chose to explore their interests; in ways that were meaningful to them; and in ways where they could find the connections that they chose in their own learning.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: That’s beautiful! You offer a number of programs. Can you summarize them here for us and tell us what we can expect from each of them.
SAPLINGS OUTDOOR PROGRAM: We offer preschool, school aged, forest only, and of course, in our newly licensed forest school, we are now offering education for children from Kindergarten to Grade 3! Essentially though, the main goal of my programs are all the same. We are wanting to create a space where children can explore and take risks in a safe environment.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: We understand that some of your programs have both indoor and outdoor components, and some are just outdoors. Can you explain.
HEATHER: Of course. Let’s start with our full day nature preschool program. This program offers both an indoor and an outdoor component. I choose to do this so we offer a licensed program to our families. This way, we can offer our families subsidies and fee reductions which are so important to them. Our Forest Only programs are similar to our full day programs but within this program, we offer a 2-4 hour program that is outdoor only. We also offer after school programs – some of which are also licensed depending on the program. So there are a lot of choices for families to choose from based on their needs. Of course, our Forest School offers both an indoor and outdoor component.
KIDS NEWS AND REVIEWS: Congratulations on becoming a licensed Forest School for kids from Kindergarten to Grade Three – that’s an amazing accomplishment! Can you describe to us what this means.
HEATHER: Of course! Saplings Nature School is our new program for children from Kindergarten to Grade Three and we will be expanding grades as we grow. While we will follow the BC school curriculum, we believe that nature is a child’s best education as the natural world provides many spontaneous learning experiences and provocations. This program is inquiry based and uses the children’s natural curiosity and wonder.
KIDS NEWS & REVIEWS: I can’t wait to come back and visit your school soon! Thank you again for having me today and for giving me so much to think about with respect to the benefits of forest based education. We understand that you are also going to be offering teaching training. Can you tell us about that too.
SAPLINGS OUTDOOR PROGRAMS: Yes! We hope to also start building a space for teacher training and development and will keep you posted about this. This program will help teachers in their building an understanding of the other-than-human world in the forest and how we can learn to live in harmony with it. Our program is unique as it really focuses on the importance of play within the natural world so in addition to our children who learn here, we would love to also offer a space to share this experience with other educators, so they can also share in the benefits of this unqiue opportunity for learning and teaching.