by Nadine Hackney, founder of The Evergreen Club, and Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs
We’re staying in Atlantic Canada for this next profile of a Forest and Nature School Program, this time chatting with Nadine Hackney, founder of The Evergreen Club in Hubbards, NS. The Evergreen Club and Through The Years Daycare and Community Centre will actually be hosting our Forest and Nature School Practitioners Course this August, and we will be observing the program and playing in these very forests and shores Nadine describes. Registration for this course opens Monday, April 9th at 10 a.m. Eastern. Please click here for more information!
Hi Nadine! Can you tell us a little bit about The Evergreen Club?
The Evergreen Club is an outdoor education program in Hubbards, NS. Our community has so many wonderful outdoor spaces including seaside beaches, forests, trails and parks, so I started the program with the goal of connecting children and families in the community to these spaces. We follow the “Head, Heart, Hands” approach to outdoor education outlined by Forest School Canada, where learning is child-directed, emergent and inquiry-based. The program runs year-round to provide continual immersion in nature and foster the development of lasting relationships with the environment, and a variety of opportunities for education and skill development evolve through experiential learning.
Can you describe your programs?
We offer a program for school age children which runs after school (2:00 – 5:00) five days per week during the school year and full days (9:00 – 5:00) on in-service days, during March break and summer break. We also have a preschool program which runs two mornings per week from 9:00 – 12:00. Our school-age group has 11 students between age 5-12 with one educator, and our preschool program has 12 students ages 3-5 with two educators. We also ran an overnight camp with our school age students for a week in the summer which was an amazing experience.
We are really fortunate to have access to a variety of outdoor spaces in our community, which allows for endless possibilities for exploration and learning! Within a short walk we can access three different seaside beaches, a river, a stream, a pond, a lake, two different amphitheatres, and endless forest and trails.
Some of the core values of the program focus on community, so I engage local individuals and organizations whenever possible so we have regular special guests and take part in community events.
What is a “typical day” like?
Not typical! We really like to see where each day takes us, and often projects or adventures can last for days or weeks, even months if the children are particularly engaged and the storyline of a game they are playing evolves over time…We have open, casual conversations at the start of the week about what some current interests are and which locations we will focus on and why. I have a big calendar up beside their coat hooks that the children can stick post-it notes on with any special events or things they would like to do. At the beginning of each seasonal session I am a bit more involved in this stage, asking questions, talking about the weather, mentioning options, but within a short time they really take on the responsibility of planning and decision making as a group. Since we have a wide variety of spaces to use we make decisions about locations based on weather, interests and interactions (with friends, the environment and the community).
To be a bit more specific…we start each session at the daycare, where children are dropped off, so they can use the washroom and change into their outdoor clothes, plus pack their bags. We have a room (used to be a classroom, now it’s a gear room!) filled with extra clothes, tools, books (identification books and story books), ropes, art supplies, buckets, shovels, science equipment, tarps, loose parts, etc. so they pack whatever they would like for the day and then we head outside! As we are getting ready, conversations and planning happen naturally, so we don’t have a formal sit-down chat about what we will do for the day…I also take this time as they are packing to check in with the kids, ask how their day has started, what they had for breakfast…for the kids this is just a nice chat, they can tell me about how many pancakes they ate or how their younger sibling kept them up all through the night…but for me, this information really helps shape my interactions with them for the day. If someone had a rough morning, didn’t sleep well or skipped a meal (just a few examples) this could impact their behaviour, emotions, physical abilities and even their safety so I keep that in mind as the day goes on.
It takes about 15 minutes to get ready, and then we head outside! Snack is available whenever the children are hungry, different kids can eat at different times if they would like, but often the group settles down to eat and chat together, or I read a story out loud for those who would like.
There are some things that have stayed consistent over the years – trees are climbed, sticks are turned into swords, mud is jumped into, tag is played, objects are floated down the stream, logs are balanced on, rocks are jumped off, and forts are made. On top of that, our adventures are endless. In the spring, we might visit the pond regularly and observe the frog and salamander spawn develop over time, or work in one of two edible community gardens that we care for. In Summer, we love biking on the trails or homemade stunt courses, playing games on the open field, swimming at the beach and picking berries (we have blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries growing wild, and last year we made jam from them too!). In the fall we enjoy making fires and building shelters and forts, perhaps taking a field trip to a local wildlife sanctuary and making art with treasures from the forest floor. In the winter we might go on a snowshoe hike or check out all the amazing ice patterns that form along the stream, and we especially love coming across animal tracks and bunny poop!
At the end of the day the children are always excited to return the following day to continue exploring, playing and learning together.
How did you come to be doing this work? What was your path to getting to where you are now?
I was inspired…I had someone special re-ignite my sense of wonder! I was attending a professional development workshop (As an Early Childhood Educator) hosted by a local professor, which was focused not just on taking children outside but really slowing down and looking more closely at everything. Literally, we observed a dandelion flower for almost an hour (did you know that one dandelion is actually hundreds of little flowers working together?!). I left the workshop feeling so inspired to incorporate everything I learned into my teaching! I ended up staying in touch with the professor and she became my mentor for some time. I learned a lot from her and was connected to some great resources, but most importantly (and I’m sorry, this may sound really cheesy) she believed in me, and encouraged me to believe in myself. So with her support my mindset changed, and I went from daydreaming about spending more time outdoors with my class, to putting in an official proposal for The Evergreen Club to the Board of Directors. And then there were a few months where all I talked about and everything I did was for my program (I’m so glad my friends and family were supportive!). I did a huge amount of reading, networking, planning, grant writing, community engagement, focus groups, policy writing and learning, which all came together wonderfully. In the Spring of 2016 I launched the first session of The Evergreen Club and it was a great success. Over the past few years I have been able to see the positive impact that the program has had on children, families and the community through lots of great feedback and support. I know I am on the right path because since starting the program I have had some of the most rewarding experiences of my life!
What have been some of the trickiest challenges you’ve faced, and how did you move through them?
Since The Evergreen Club is run out of a licensed daycare, I had some added challenges in making sure all the licensing requirements were met. Since most requirements are met with indoor equipment or activities, I had to go through the list and write explanations for how each requirement could be met while outside. It was very time consuming, but I am grateful that I had a supportive licensing officer who was excited about my program and was open to answering all my questions.
A big challenge for me was feeling like I was alone, swimming against the current for a long time. There were some discouraging moments where I had to navigate some resistance to change or when I tried to explain the benefits of outdoor play to someone who didn’t value it as much as I do. During those times it was really valuable to have a community of support built up around me, and eventually a larger community of support after taking the FNS Practitioners Course.
What advice would you pass along to folks hoping to start a FNS program?
Some things to keep in mind…
- Community engagement is extremely valuable – it is important to get input, feedback and support from a wide variety of people in order so make a program successful, especially in a small community
- Learn about other forest school programs, visit them or make some phone calls – people in this field are often really passionate and excited and that can be a great way to feel supported (I am open to visits and/or calls!)
- Your program does not have to be the same as others…figure out what you are passionate about, what your strengths are, and what your community has in terms of physical resources and go from there
- Read…there are a lot of great books and articles out there that are really helpful and inspiring (Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder is my personal favourite, reading that is actually what inspired me to start The Evergreen Club!)
- Get comfortable with your hard skills – find a family member, friend or community member or take a course to learn how to properly and use your tools and equipment, and practice!
- Take time to do what you need to do to stay inspired, curious and energetic! Modeling that is the best way to instill the sense of wonder in children
What hopes do you have for The Evergreen Club and for FNS in Nova Scotia and/or Canada?
The Evergreen Club is just the beginning! I have been working with recreation departments and local schools to develop more outdoor education programs around the province. My goal is to work with individuals, families, organizations and government so that outdoor education opportunities can become imbedded in our community and meaningful relationships with nature can be developed in people of all ages and abilities.
I am so thrilled to be able to share my experience with others and I look forward to networking and collaborating with others across Nova Scotia and Canada in the future. It is really exciting to see Forest School Canada/ CNAC becoming such a great leader in forest school education and working with strong core values to further the development of the field. I hope to see passion, excitement, learning, engagement, collaboration and support continue spreading across Canada!