Petra Eperjesi is excited to be leading into its second year the Outdoor Kindergarten program at Tawingo College in Huntsville, Ontario. The program met with such success in its pilot year that enrollment has more than doubled since September 2012. The class is now comprised of sixteen children ages three through five, and is co-taught by Kate Ksiezopolski and Petra. Together they spend at least half of every day outside, rain, shine, snow, or blackflies!
Prior to teaching Outdoor Kindergarten, Petra taught ESL in Honduras and Grade 1/2 (inside!) at Tawingo. She graduated with an MA in Child Study and Education from the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study (JICS), the laboratory school of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto in 2010. While she spent her adolescence canoeing in northern Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec, she had no special training before launching the Outdoor Kindergarten program at Tawingo.
Every Friday Petra sends the parents of her students a “weekly roundup”, providing details of what the “K-pals” have been up to that week. She will be compiling highlights from those emails each month to share on the ‘Forest School Canada’ blog, with the intention of painting a picture of what Outdoor or Forest Kindergarten can look like, month to month. Here is the first installment!
September is such a perfect time of year in Muskoka; the temperature is comfortable (no snow suits necessary yet!), the bugs have largely come and gone, and the cold Fall rain is still a few weeks away. We’re lucky to start our Outdoor Kindergarten year – the time when our students are growing accustomed to spending most of their day outside – in September.
In Outdoor Kindergarten this month we’ve been busy hiking all over the property, from the beach, to the “Enchanted Forest”, to the Tree House and beyond. The K-pals are coming to know and feel confident in and connected to each of these special areas through play and exploration. Already they’re building the relationship to place that we hope will translate into future stewardship.
Here are some highlights from the first weeks of our year!
Week 1: “Well, we made it to the end of the first full week of the school year, and it was a busy one! We made the most of these last days of summer by playing at the waterfront on Friday and then again this Monday. We made it out to “Fox Fires” – a favourite K-pal play spot by a ravine in the forest near the garden – and hiked all the way to the tree house, where the K-pals used their sketchbooks for the first time to paint with watercolours. We even had an impromptu outdoor art gallery!
Then we ended the week by baking a chocolate zucchini cake (with a zucchini from the garden!) in the outdoor oven at Jorgi Junction.”
Week 2: “This week many of the K-pals dictated their first stories to us after a “story hike” to the tree house. Every few minutes we took a rest, and I told one part of the Seneca legend called “The Origin of Stories” in which a young orphan boy discovers a rock that tells him the first-ever story. It is always so interesting to see the way the stories we share with the K-pals begin to inform their own story telling, and their play. Not surprisingly, immediately upon arrival at the tree house, the K-pals had found their own “story stone”. We’re looking forward to watching how the students’ stories change and grow over the course of the year.”
Week 3: “This week in K-pal we began a project called “The Square of Life”. This is a project in which students mark out a meter-squared area and investigate and list everything they find in it. (See http://ciese.org/curriculum/squareproj/). We started out by deciding together where to outline our square, based on where we predicted we would find the most interesting and diverse range of life. Suggestions included: “the desert, because we might find dinosaur bones!” (The desert is the sandy hill leading to the tree house). After ruling out the creek in Boys Camp (“we’ll only find salamanders!”) the K-pals agreed that the Enchanted Forest would be the best place to mark out our square.”
“Once we arrived in the Enchanted Forest, the K-pals chose a spot with a decomposing stump, where, in pairs and using magnifying glasses and cameras, they looked for evidence of chipmunks and squirrels, and discovered moss, leaves, “spike trees” (baby pine trees) and “white stuff”. The mystery white stuff has particularly caught our attention, and we wonder if it is some kind of chemical that causes trees to fall and die, and if that chemical is naturally occurring or spread by humans. Next week we’ll attempt to find out more about it!”
While September is ideal in many ways, it also brings with it its own particular challenges: weather can be quite changeable, so students need to dress in layers. These layers then come off as the day warms up, so teachers need to develop a system, along with parents, to ensure that no clothing items go missing.
Facilitating students’ responsibility for their belongings takes a lot of time in September, and it’s often easier (and much more efficient) to do everything for them. However, I’ve found that if you resist that temptation and invest the time now in teaching children how to manage their own gear – this includes putting it on, taking it off, putting it in their backpacks to avoid losing it, and looking for it themselves when something goes missing – the payoff definitely comes, and later in the year teachers are doing much less work in that department.
So that’s September in a nutshell! Bring on October!