Outdoor education must not be scrapped

by Catherine Fife
Mar 31, 2007
The Record, Ontario, Canada

My first memory of walking in the woods, at the Boyne River Natural Science School north of Toronto, was made possible by the city's board of education.

It was well worth the funding. What I learned about respect for nature and our connection to the environment has stayed with me my entire life.

For some conservationists, educators and parents, bringing more children to nature has become a moral imperative. The obvious disconnect between children today and their immediate and natural environment is the cause of their concerns. A childhood spent inside the safety of our homes, surrounded by electrical entertainment and virtual exercises, has led to obesity among the young and other negative health conditions.

Playing and learning outside is a healthier option and a necessary experience for future stewards of the environment.

Learning opportunities outside the classroom for inner city, rural or suburban students should not be considered an educational frill. Such occasions need to be mandated in the curriculum and should be fully funded or cost- shared by the provincial ministries of education, environment, energy or natural resources. Any silo will do.

It should, however, fall mainly under the mandate of the education ministry because the Grade 1 to 8 curriculum states: "The emphasis on the relationship of science and technology to the world outside the school must be paramount throughout the program if students are to recognize that science and technology are not just school subjects, but fields of knowledge that affect their lives, their community, and the world."

Curriculum documents across all levels and subjects emphasize the need to expand the scope of student learning beyond the classroom. And yet, outdoor education remains a non-mandated and unfunded program.

The connection between investing in environmental education and academic success is finally gaining credibility. Research confirms that learning capacity is expanded through experiential learning. Students benefit just by being outside. The environment appeals to multiple learning styles. When the classroom is a forest, swamp or field, observation, critical thinking and problem solving abilities increase.
Not all education should occur within the four walls of a classroom and I've never met a teacher or a student who thought so.

Outdoor classrooms and school yard naturalization projects have been supported by Toyota, Evergreen, hydro corporations and other community partners. They have stepped up to the plate, but the policy-makers have not. Children can enjoy the generosity of others but they must be able to count on publicly funded access to outdoor education experiences. This is also a matter of equity.

My generation is just beginning to learn that neither the economy nor the environment will thrive only at the expense of the other. Knowledge, appreciation and understanding of our environment foster stronger citizens. Turning off the lights and taps, walking to school and buying from our local markets are smart decisions for the economy and for the environment. Education is the key to cultural and consumer change and, ultimately, shared information can alter the way we treat our environment.

I'm sure that residents wonder why outdoor education constantly returns each budget for discussion of closure or cuts in our school board, especially when these important programs serve almost 20,000 children in our region each year. The cost is $360,000 -- which is just a fraction of the board's budget. However, we must pull this portion out of other funding envelopes to operate the program.

Outdoor education has never been funded by any government. School boards could only use their local priorities grant to fund this program. When the former Conservative government removed the school boards' ability to raise their own taxes, it never created an envelope to fund outdoor education.

Unfortunately, today the focus from political circles continues to be test-centric with published results and school rankings. Obviously literacy is our core business. If a child does not understand the written word, he or she will not understand the world.
However, the world also requires ecological literacy, an understanding of our environment, and the impact we have as citizens is critically important. This we do not test for.

There is a movement abroad that is seeking to reconnect the child with nature. In the United States, it is called "no child left inside." This initiative challenges all citizens to recall their childhood memories when they played outdoors and experienced the joy of nature. In this world, where subdivisions are built without naturalized play areas and street hockey is prohibited, where very few neighbourhoods see play forts or open and unplanned green space, the important task of exposing children to nature increasingly falls at the foot of educators and our community partners.

Some progress has been made, but as always it is slow, cumbersome and, yes, bureaucratic. Last June, the Waterloo Region District School Board lobbied with our provincial trustee association for a ministry review of outdoor education and a working table to establish new funding models. The working table was recently announced and is to be led by Roberta Bondar.

However, neither this table nor this timing will protect or guarantee outdoor education programs from closure. The ministry expects a balanced budget. If our books are not balanced we risk being taken over by a supervisor which will guarantee the closure of our centres.

Almost every school board across the province is in the same position, and some have already lost programming. I recently learned that in 2003 the Boyne River facility was closed to students due to lack of provincial funding. I'm fortunate to have walked the wooded path at Boyne River and to have experienced this natural environment. Every child should be guaranteed this right.

We know that this generation of students needs to be able to understand and deal with environmental issues for us to maintain our quality of life on this planet.
Everyone in the education system --trustees, teachers, parents, students --recognizes the value of outdoor and environmental education. The Ontario curriculum is going green, emphasizing environmental literacy and values. At this point in time, the funding of environmental education should not be an issue. But until there is dedicated funding from the Ministry of Education, school boards provincewide will struggle to maintain the programs and centres they have in place already, much less meet the growing demand for more.

Catherine Fife is a trustee with the Waterloo Region District School Board and is chair of the Environmental Advisory Committee.