Sask Polytech collaborative project looks to grow outdoor education

A collaborative project involving Sask Polytech seeks to expand outdoor education./Photo courtesy Okanagan College

Sask Polytech and three partner institutions have received a funding boost from the Lawson Foundation for a project that will help in their efforts to advance outdoor early learning and teaching across Canada.

The collaborative project by Bow Valley College, New Brunswick Community College, Okanagan College and Saskatchewan Polytechnic is called Outdoor Pedagogy in Early Childhood Education: From Colleges to Communities and has been awarded a grant of a grant of $750,000.

Project lead Dr. Beverlie Dietze, director of learning and applied research at Okanagan College, explained that outdoor education is vital for children because of health benefits, physical literacy and connecting with nature.

“Those are core components in children’s development as well as we look at it from a social development, peer play and experiences that support children in preparing for later academic skills. Much of the foundations, for example, of science and math are started as children engage in outdoor experiences,” Dietze said.

She explained that outdoor education is vital as part of health and wellness and supports students in returning to the outdoors as a place where they participate in daily lives.

“This is how we build environmental stewardship and how children are going to become further connected with their environment and care for their environment,” she explained

Nancy Holden, Sask Polytech School of Human Services academic chair agreed. She added that children could be educated in various curriculum through outdoor learning.

“They are doing it without realizing what they are doing. So there is science when they try to put two sticks together and wonder if they are going to hold each other up or they are going to do math when they are playing in the rocks and they want everyone to have the same number. All parts of their being and growth — whether it is creatively, cognitively — all of those pieces can be tapped into when they are playing outdoors,” Holden said.

According to Dietze, there is social learning and physical learning in outdoor learning including strengthening body structures as a physical aspect.

“The whole notion of what we call self-regulation or knowing how far they can push and pull with their friends — that happens when they are outdoors in a rough and tumble experience. And when we look at it emotionally it’s a very important place for children to again gain that sense of calmness and ability to deal with some of their stressors and to really be able to refocus,” Dietze said.

She explained that it is important from a health and educational perspective.

“When we look at young children and preparing them for later academic skills it very much is connected to those earlier experiences. When we look at the increase in children with diabetes, when we look at the children having visual difficulties, those are all related to them requiring action and activity in the outdoor environment. We can actually contribute a great deal to reducing our heath care costs when we have children engaged in regular outdoor experiences.”

The goal of the three-year project is to demonstrate a model of outdoor pedagogy practices, teaching, learning and mentoring that will create a shift in curriculum in post-secondary Early Childhood Education (ECE) programs and in community early learning and child care programs. 

According to a press release, in 2018 only five out of 100 college ECE programs had explicit outdoor pedagogy courses and no practicum experiences for students had outdoor play requirements. In addition, a Canadian survey of 896 ELCC educators who enrolled in an online outdoor play training course found that 89 per cent of respondents had never received any training in outdoor pedagogy, and 72 per cent indicated that they lacked the training and experience to implement outdoor pedagogy in their work.

“Pedagogy means a combination of experiences and knowledge creates learning. So when we look at it from an outdoor perspective, we use the term outdoor pedagogy because it’s going to be the experiences, the play, the connections to land that will contribute to children building on their learning and their knowledge foundations,” Dietze said.

Through the collaboration, the group aims to support college instructors, their students, and early childhood educators, in implementing high quality outdoor experiences and play opportunities to and with children. 

Dietze explained that the project’s purpose is to support ECE students to work on understanding the impact of outdoor play and experiences with children.

“So that is the intent that we will increase the amount of education that those educators see. And then when they are working with children they will see the outdoor environment as a very important part of the experiences that children require,” Dietze said.

Holden explained that the learning occurs naturally.

“It is adults who put labels on things. Children don’t sit around and say okay I am going to engage in a cognitive activity now and I am going to sit down and do some science, but yet, that is what they are doing,” Holden said.

Children playing in nature can learn through the labels and language that already exist.

“So it is a great opportunity and when you think about. We often ask our students to think about one childhood memory that brings you joy and it’s interesting because 98 per cent of the students will reflect on an outdoor activity,” she added.

Dietze explained that land-based learning is part of the package for children. She said that it supports children in looking at the place they are and utilizing, preserving and getting to what is in the land.

“It’s all interconnected. Whether we utilize the term land-based or outdoor pedagogy the principles are the same. We are wanting children to connect to their environment and to use that as a lab for their play,” Dietze said.

According to Dietze. Saskatchewan is a large part of adding to the knowledge base of the project because of experiences in the land. That will be part of the research as it spreads internationally.

“Your communities are very important to this project as we learn and create that new awareness of how land-based and outdoor pedagogy can be implemented in communities such as yours,” Dietze said.

“Further from the college perspective how it makes a difference in their graduates in being prepared when they graduate to bring this new knowledge base to the children and the families of your communities.”

Holden explained that one goal would be ideally to develop an outdoor demonstration center similar to one that currently exists for ECE programming.

“We may be able to develop a demonstration center in outdoor play where we have an opportunity for children to come and they live outdoors for the entire time that they are in there,” she said.

 “When you say to someone that they are going to send a three-year-old outside at minus 20 degree weather most people would cringe. There are ways around that and this will be part of the project that we will be able to prove to people that there are safe ways to allow children to be outdoors during those times,” she explained.

Holden explained that the different institutions  bring different experiences with four partners each bringing their own perspective.

“Saskatchewan plays a really key part in a lot of different ways. Definitely in our harsh winters comparative to places like British Columbia or New Brunswick. But also our level of Indigenous and how can we incorporate Indigenous ways of doing that are very much ties to the outdoors and nature and what can we offer there.”

Sask Polytech is happy to be part of the partnership as it grows.

“Really we see it as a Canada-wide opportunity to really make a difference in the future for our communities and for our society,” Holden said.

“When children get these opportunities to be outdoors and to learn through nature and improve their health it is nothing but a win-win and I think this is just the beginning of what is to come.”