Environment school takes education outside

For one project, students learned different lashing and knot-tying techniques, and were tasked with building temporary shelters.  - Craig Cerhit/Contributed
For one project, students learned different lashing and knot-tying techniques, and were tasked with building temporary shelters.
— image credit: Craig Cerhit/Contributed

Through the soggy western hemlock, Douglas-fir and red cedar, a handful of students and their teacher trudge down a hiking trail in the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest.

It’s a typically wet B.C. winter morning this particular Friday, and the students, part of School District No. 42’s Environmental School Project, have spent the better part of the morning in the woods working to repair the trail as part of a “social responsibility project” for the class.

Bundled up in their waterproof jackets and gumboots, they are oblivious to the cold January drizzle.

Under the supervision of teachers, even the youngest students work with hacksaws and shovels, clearing away the underbrush and digging up the dark, rich soil, ensuring hikers will have a well-marked trail through the forest. The group follows the freshly cut trail, looking for the rest of the class, who have gathered in a clearcut a few hundred metres away, well out of sight and earshot.

Over the hill, the trail crosses one of the many gravel logging roads in the demonstration forest. There’s no telling if the rest of the class followed the trail on the far side of the road, or if they opted to hike down the road itself.

“The group went this way,” says one of the students, pointing to the trail. “I can tell because of their footprints in the mud, they’re fresh.”

The other students follow with the teacher in tow as the trail snakes through a stand of mature hemlock and crests a small hill.

Sure enough, there the rest of the class waits at the bottom of the hill.

For most classes, a field trip to the demonstration forest might be the highlight of the term.

For the 56 kindergarten to Grade 7 students of the district’s Environmental school, it’s just another school day.

Today’s lesson plan begins with learning about the anatomy of a tree, of which there are millions of examples of in the 5,400-hecare forest. After working to clear the 500-metre-long section of overgrown hiking trail, the class takes part in a nature hike, where they look at the interaction between the forest canopy, and the prevalence of undergrowth on the forest floor.

“The class has already done Venn diagrams comparing the similarities in human anatomy to the anatomy of a salmon, so this afternoon we are going to introduce another element and compare those two to the anatomy of a tree,” says Clayton Maitland, one of the program’s founders.

Maitland says the idea for the program began three years ago with a conversation with teacher Jodi Macquarrie about the future of education and how learning could be re-imagined. The program, which began this past September, incorporates a number of different education models into a single self-guided, project-based, hands-on learning experience.

“To my knowledge, no one is doing what we are doing,” he says.

Lesson plans are locally-focussed, and are heavily rooted in the natural environment. Students help design their own projects and their interests help determine the lesson plan.

Instead of learning about the Mayans as part of their studies on indigenous peoples, the class instead learns about the Katzie First Nation. For a lesson on governance and politics, the class visits Maple Ridge municipal hall.

Most of all, the program aims to break down the walls of the traditional classroom, and immerse students in learning opportunities.

The traditional classroom separates students from the world they are meant to be learning about, says Maitland, and in so doing compartmentalizes learning.

“We want to create life-long learners,” he says. “Learning doesn’t end when you go home from school at the end of the day.”

For many of the students, they may be having too much fun to realize they’re learning at all.

“I think a lot of kids didn’t feel like they were learning at first, because it was so fun, and we weren’t in a classroom writing in a notebook,” says Grade 7 student Kiara Miles. “But really, you’re learning all the time. It’s just in a different way.”

Miles says in addition to the regular subjects students normally learn about in elementary school, students in the environmental school get to learn life skills as well.

She recently designed and built an outhouse for one of her projects, and learned to make a fire in the rain with just two matches.

Randi Williams is also in Grade 7 and says she enjoys the program.

“It’s way easier to learn here,” she says. “In elementary school, you had to sit there, and you just wrote at your desk.

“You never got to do anything.”

There are three teachers and two teacher assistants assigned to the program, along with countless parent volunteers. The program  features an identical cross-section of students to any other class, complete with learning-disabled kids, and those with behavioural challenges.

“We have all kinds of learners,” says Maitland.

For the teachers involved, the program is a dream come true.

“It’s a stimulating environment and there’s a lot of values instilled here,” says Val Moore, a special education assistant with the program. “There’s a lot of deep, rich thinking happening here ... and that’s often not the case with [a traditional classroom education].”

Students are very confined in the classroom, but the Environmental School Project offers them unlimited potential for learning.

“I don’t think I could work in a classroom again,” Moore says.

The program’s teachers consult daily on lesson plans, and have found that flexibility is key.

For one project, students learned different lashing and knot-tying techniques, and were tasked with building temporary shelters.

As the small community of forts began to take shape, the students took it upon themselves to hold elections for leader.

Seeing the students developing an interest in politics, the teachers switched gears and introduced students to the different forms of government. In the end, the students decided to hold an election for an absolute leader, who then appointed their own cabinet.

“Because it was something they were interested in, it was easy to go with it, and they weren’t fighting it,” says teacher Randy Bates. “And that’s why they don’t think they’re learning, because it’s natural. Instead of filling out a worksheet on governance, they’re doing it for real.”

Bates’ son is in Grade 7 and is a student in the program.

“He wishes we had a Grade 8, that’s how much he enjoys it,” says Bates.

As a parent, Bates says he was drawn to the program for the hands-on life experience it could provide his son.

“When you are doing these things hands on, you don’t forget it as easily,” he says. “I think the learning here goes deeper ... and the students are going to come out of here with a lot more life tools.”

The students aren’t always outdoors. The program’s “base” is a 300-square-foot yurt located near the entrance to the demonstration forest. Heated by a wood stove, the class crowds inside for lectures or story-telling.

The program’s literacy component brings the students to Maple Ridge Public Library, and written work is often completed at the James Best Learning Centre in Maple Ridge.

The program was the recipient of a $1 million Community/University Research Grant in March, which will fund researchers from Simon Fraser University for five years to train teachers and develop the school’s curriculum.

Dr. John Telford is one of those researchers, and it his job to document the life of the school and see how it evolves.

“I’m looking at how is it working, at the ways the kids interact, and the culture of the school,” he says.

One of the most significant observations he has made has been the success of the multi-age format of the program.

Because students aren’t confined to age-groups or physical classrooms, they are more opportunities for social interaction.

“The relationships that are developing between students across those age groups is fantastic to watch. The older ones aren’t just tolerating the younger ones, they really enjoy their presence and mentor them,” says Telford. “All these boundaries are being broken down, at it seems like a much more natural way of being.”

He’s heard from a number of parents that students in the program are also more attentive when they return home from school.

“At the end of the day, the kids are coming back tired, but not a brain-tired, or tried from stress,” Telford says. “They are physically nice and tired, but they are mentally engaged and ready to take part, whereas before they would need to sit in front of the TV for an hour just to decompress.”

Telford says the Environmental School model could be applied in many ways

“There could be lots of different ways of doing it, maybe a school doesn’t need to be outside everyday, maybe they only go one or two days,” he says. “But I don’t see why this couldn’t be everywhere.”

• The Environmental School Project is holding an information session for interested parents and students on Thursday, Jan. 19 at the District Education Office at 22225 Brown Avenue, Maple Ridge from 7 to 9 p.m. Registration for next year’s class begins Jan. 30. For more information about the program, visit

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