by Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs and Pat Andrews of Natural Pathways
Welcome to the third instalment of our series profiling Forest and Nature School programs in Canada (click here and here for the first two!) As part of our exploration of the question, “How can I start a Forest and Nature School program?” we sat down with Pat Andrews, founder of Natural Pathways in Windsor, Ontario. Natural Pathways will be hosting our Practitioners Course at Pt. Pelee National Park this April, and we will be visiting their programs as part of the course! Registration for that course opens Monday, January 15. Please click here for more information.
Hi Pat! Can you tell us a little bit about Natural Pathways?
Our Forest and Nature School programs are offered through Natural Pathways Learning Centre. We are a non-profit organization local to the Windsor and Essex County area in Ontario. Our programs are currently offered in two main locations – Holiday Beach Conservation Area (operated by Essex Region Conservation Area) and Camp Bryerswood (operated by Girl Guides of Ontario). We also occasionally visit a local farm and bird sanctuary for our drop in programs.
Can you describe your programs?
Over the past 16 months that we’ve been delivering Forest and Nature School programs we have offered:
- once a week family drop in Forest Adventures
- 6 week Forest and Nature School programs to a private Montessori School
- summer Forest School day camps
- 6 week Forest Kindergarten
- PA day Forest Camp
- School Groups – one day Forest School Adventure (2 1/2 and 4 hr options)
- Ontario Early Years Centres Forest Adventures
- Greater Essex County District School Board Professional Development day for school staff as well as Kindergarten teachers in the county.
What is a “typical day” like?
Our typical day starts with a gathering circle around the campfire, welcome, songs, stories, introductions, sparking curiosity. We then usually move into our preparations for a hike (clothing, bathroom break, snack, etc.) and then head out for about a 45 – 60 min hike on the trails. After returning to our ‘home base’ we invite our group to explore and connect with nature through some materials that we offer (ropes, tarps, tools, mud kitchen, mud painting, etc). We will often initiate a cleanup time with a song, followed by time for a sit spot. We end our day with a gathering circle during which we sometimes share the story of the day, sometimes a mapping activity, sometimes the talking stick gets passed around. We close with a song.
How did you get started as a FNS educator, and how did you land where you are now?
After being a classroom teacher for quite a while, followed by a few years of education consulting, I took the Forest School Practitioner Course offered by Forest School Canada. I was eager to offer children and families the opportunity to experience nature connection through play and through discovering our local wild spaces. As part of the Practitioner Course there is a 6 week practicum requirement. The local Montessori School where I teach music was eager to participate in this experience. I contacted our local Essex Region Conservation Authority and they were interested in the program and offered space at Holiday Beach Conservation Area free of charge for this 6 week practicum. We began slowly branching out to local families and community groups to offer drop in programs and also to build relationships with the Boy Scouts at Camp Cedarwin and the Girl Guides at Camp Bryerswood, to offer programs in these woodland spaces.
What have been some of the trickiest challenges you’ve faced, and how did you move through them?
One of the first challenges we faced was developing our business as a non-profit organization, and all of the logistics and paperwork that go along with this process. Every step in the process seemed to be (and still often is) a new learning situation. We were eager to find other organizations going through similar processes in order to learn from and work together.
It’s been a work in progress to develop relationships with land owners and community organizations. Our programs require equipment storage and often we move to other sites so this can be a challenge. Our other site challenge is around rental fees. We needed to shift our programs this past year due to a steep increase in rental fees making it impossible to continue at one of our beautiful woodland spaces. It was difficult as we had many wonderful experiences there. However, it allowed us to really explore our other locations more deeply and find new spaces and adventures.
Although we do have access to indoor space at our sites, we share it and need to set up and take down each time we venture inside. It has been a challenge this year with communicating and encouraging all children and adults to dress appropriately for our weather and to bring extra changes of clothing to Forest School. One of our sites has low lying areas that flood often and children love to play in the puddles (without proper footwear or being prepared for being wet). We are working on new strategies for communicating what to expect and how to prepare for Forest School adventures.
Something else we are working on currently is building relationships with our local First Nations communities. We honour and value the wisdom of Indigenous knowledge keepers, and we seek to learn from and with our local community groups and to build stronger partnerships that support breaking down the barriers that may inhibit folks from getting outside.
What advice would you pass along to folks hoping to start a FNS program?
Some ideas I would suggest are:
- find/build a support system of like-minded people
- build community partnerships with local organizations that share similar mission
- do your research
- find a location (and a backup?) that is suitable to your needs (wooded area, storage, etc)
- have a mentor you can call on for advice
- consider the equipment you might need
- take the Forest and Nature School Practitioner Course
What hopes do you have for Natural Pathways and for FNS in Ontario and/or Canada?
Our dream at Natural Pathways is to grow the Forest School movement in our local area to connect more children with their natural surroundings. Our school programming is growing and we hope to offer some ‘nearby nature’ programs near local schools, encouraging educators to explore natural spaces without needing to go far. We also dream about a ‘forest home’ where we can put down some roots and develop our programs more fully, and therefore, are looking at funding opportunities that will allow us to grow and expand. We are also expanding our discussions with our local partners to see how we might develop these partnerships more fully to reach greater numbers of people in our programs.
Forest and Nature School in Ontario/Canada is growing and we’re so excited about being part of this connecting web of learning and mentoring through nature, through inquiry and through emergent child-led play. As a facilitator in training with FNS Canada/CNAC it’s an honour to be part of the authentic, meaningful engagement and collaborative leadership that is an integral part of this organization and to dream big about the far-reaching possibilities of meaningful connections in the natural wild spaces in Canada.