An unorthodox approach to education

HORSESHOE VALLEY — Oliver Smith makes a toy seesaw for birds from fallen branches while Cedar Van Pypen-Wentzel creates nests nearby using clay and twigs should the wee flock need a rest.

Such is the scene at Oro-Medonte Forest School, a place near Horseshoe Valley where both preschool and school-aged children can enjoy the great outdoors while developing their imaginations, autonomy and social skills.

"I like to find feathers," four-year-old Sophie Sargent explained between bites of an apple she enjoyed as a morning snack while sitting just above the forest floor.

"We see a lot of birds out here. All kinds."

Lindsay Sargent, the school’s director and lead educator, said Forest School education is an approach that began in the late 1950s, primarily in Europe, and has spread more recently to North America.

"Forest Schools are rapidly growing in popularity in Canada as an educational/recreational choice to get children outside, using their active imaginations, playing and learning in nature," said Sargent, who founded the local school with friend Melanie Van Pypen.

The school operates several days a week with a variety of programs geared towards children aged 18 months to 10 years of age. Rates vary depending on the child’s age and how long they are at the school on any given day, but generally fall in the $25 to $50 range.

Although they only recently opened, Sargent said they normally attract nine or 10 children from across the region a day with a special parent and tot program offered on Fridays.

In a Forest School program, children spend anywhere from a half day to a full day outdoors in meadows, forests, mountains, shorelines and natural spaces with an emphasis on outdoor play, collaborative and independent inquiry and exploration.

Sargent said the forest-school approach is more holistic-based than what a child might experience in a bricks-and-mortar school.

"I was an educator for quite a while teaching in the classroom," she said. "I saw the value of kids learning outside. It’s good for young kids to play in nature. We both have kids and found our kids learn a lot when outside."

Parent Shawna McKenzie drives her three-year-old son Chord to the school on Tuesdays from their home in Rama.

"I think I realized how great an opportunity this is for kids," McKenzie said, noting the school isn’t conventional compared to typical learning environments, but offers an exceptional experience to help positively foster a child’s overall development.

Sargent and Van Pypen said they realized the concept would work as they observed their own children and their peers playing in the forest and noticing how the natural world can evoke powerful questions and stimulate very elaborate and imaginative games.

But Van Pypen said calling it a school is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s more of a recreation program with attendees varying from day to day.

"We noticed a need in our community," Van Pypen said, adding that too often these days children are spending too much time indoors and in front of a screen rather than being active.

"Kids need to be outside. We’re seeing the benefits with these kids."

Luke Van Almelsvoort said he loves coming to the school and understands its benefits.

"We’re outside all day," the nine-year-old explained. "There’s nothing better than that. We get lots of fresh air."

Other participants like Ben Welsh say they just love getting to see all of nature’s wonder and a variety of wildlife on a regular basis.

The seven-year-old added: "We see lots of squirrels and sometimes they come to play with us."

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