Thursday 15 January 2015

Outdoor Learning: "The Absolute Best"

“The best math lessons happen after supper on a camping trip,” says Chris Clark, a teacher with the Saskatoon Public School’s Nikanetan program. “The kids are physically tired. They’ve eaten well, slept well; they’re getting in tune with the way human beings are supposed to be. We may do traditional math – even fractions, one of the most challenging concepts – but that’s okay because they haven’t been lectured to all day long.”

Nikanetan is an experiential education program for students in grade 8. The focus is on teamwork and leadership and is designed to re-engage youth who are at risk of dropping out of school. The program is based out of Westmount Community School. All equipment, transportation, and food costs are covered by the program so money is not a barrier to participation.

Experiential Learning 
In experiential learning, students learn by doing and participating. Building quinzhees under different snow conditions is an opportunity to explore structures and how snow works. Shopping for groceries before a camping trip requires mathematics.

“Experiential learning has been around for thousands of years,” Chris says. “And it works. The kids will tell you that they’ve never been so engaged with education and their teachers as they are in this program.”

Outdoor Learning
Chris can’t imagine teaching without being outdoors. “Being outdoors changes the tone, the mood. We know the difference if the students haven’t been outdoors for a while,” he says.

The students go camping within two weeks of starting the program and it plays a valuable role in establishing relationships

The class went up north for a four-day camping trip last year. Chris remembers one student stepping off the bus, heaving a sigh of relief, and saying “This is the absolute best.”

Camping takes students away from all the stress of home and city life. Everything is safe – the people, the activities. They have a list of things they’d like to do, but there’s no clock and if they don’t get everything done, it doesn’t matter.

Learning happens more naturally and more easily outdoors. “We sat in a teepee at Brightwater yesterday and had a 45-minute lecture on hypothermia,” Chris says. “It was unusual, but the students were interested because it was relevant and they were outdoors.”

Nikanetan focuses on teamwork and leadership in order to re-engage students. Sustainability and the environment are not core components of this program.*  “Environmentalism, sustainability, recycling are easier to do when you are well-off,” Chris says. “It can be difficult to buy quality products that can be fixed or local, organic food if you are having problems making ends meet.”

Knowing their students’ backgrounds, the teachers don’t tell students what to do. “We tell students what science is saying about the future and then ask them what they can do,” Chris explains.

Each student is expected to choose a sustainability project. Their goal is to make an impact with the hope that this will become an attitude that they will maintain throughout their lives. Last year the students raised money for breast cancer and a school in Africa. “They didn’t feel they could have an impact on sustainability, but they could help others who had less than them,” Chris says.

Sustainability projects typically involve sharing information with others (e.g. other classes), which also fits with the leadership focus of the program.

It’s difficult to offer in-depth nature studies – “With 28 grade 8 kids, how many bears do you think there are around? We don’t even hear birds.” – but Chris says that they take advantage of any opportunity that comes their way. Drumming is a chance to not only make music but to learn about the history of drumming, hide-making and animals. On visits to Pike Lake, they observe how the scenery changes with the seasons.

Words of Advice
Chris emphasizes the importance of getting outdoors: “You don’t need tons of money to go outside or to go camping. Just do it.”

Want More Info? 
Education for Sustainability: A Conversation with Janet McVittie
“We are Eco Mean but Global Green” Student Action for a Sustainable Future
Impacts of Climate Change on the South Saskatchewan Watershed (Saskatoon Outdoor School) 

*EcoQuest, another program of Saskatoon Public Schools, is specifically designed to focus on outdoor, ecological activities.

Photo credit: Chris Clark, Nikanetan