The importance of nature in children’s development: Québec initiatives part 2

In Quebec, many extremely interesting initiatives are emerging across the province allowing children to reconnect with nature. A real movement in this direction is observable. Before our departure, we had the chance to meet some of the actors of this green shift and it is of them that I want to speak to you today through two other promising projects!

Nature in the heart of Montreal or when Mount Royal becomes a playground and a place of discovery!

When you live in a big city, getting kids out into the wild for school learning can quickly become a headache. Yet, we often forget, the majority of these cities already have more or less large green spaces that allow tons of discoveries to be made a few steps from the school. Montreal also has several of these places, the best known being probably Mount Royal. And this is where the first initiative that I want to share with you today comes to life. Here, a non-profit organization that works to enhance Mount Royal and protect heritage through community engagement and environmental education offers several projects to schools, families and children in the city. Among all our education and awareness projects, we have a forest school. The objective of this school is to offer young Montrealers to go and visit nature frequently to allow them to create a feeling of belonging to this nature, and in particular to Mount Royal of course, while allowing us to form the new generation that will protect natural environments,  says Maria Nacher, head of the school program at Les amis de la montagne.

Photo: Maria Nacher and Éric Richard from Les amis de la montagne.

These programs, which take place throughout the year, regardless of the weather, have been designed for school groups and groups of young people of all ages. They are aimed at children of preschool, primary and secondary levels, day camps as well as daycare centers. They can even be adapted for groups with special needs and be animated in English on request. “Here, we use scientific, experiential, emotional and sensory approaches. Everything is done by following the interests of young people. They are the ones who lead the discovery and we are here to facilitate these discoveries and to help them, ” says Ms. Nacher.

For Les amis de la montagne, since Mount Royal is one of the largest green spaces in Montreal, it is the ideal place to allow children to spend time in nature, have fun outside or learn more on the history of the site, without having to leave the city. In February 2019, some 300 participants (children and accompanying adults) could take advantage of it once a month. ” Our dream would be that all young Montrealers could experience a project like this at least once in their school career. Perhaps not necessarily on Mount Royal because the forest would not have the capacity to accommodate so many children. But we want to develop our project on the mountain and also make it a place of learning so that the entire educational community can have access to a project like this near their home, ” explains Éric Richard, director education and conservation at Les amis de la montagne.

Although it is obvious, for them, as for all the stakeholders working on projects in this sense, that the more one is in contact with nature, the more the effects are felt, Maria Nacher and Éric Richard note that they would be utopian, if we want the project to remain accessible to all, to require that schools come there every week. “Once a month, I think it’s a minimum,” insists Mr. Richard. “On the other hand, it would surely be a very interesting research project to find the ideal frequency to have a significant impact on young people,” he continues. On the other hand, for them, what is most important is not to abandon the concept of the forest school because it is impossible to go there every day. By going there once a month, you can still have a significant impact for young people. The important thing is to at least try to take the first step with the resources we have, ” believes the director.

For them, as for their organism, it is obvious that children should spend more time outdoors, from an early age, to discover nature and learn more about the environment. In addition to the school project, Les amis de la montagne offers a forest school, a day camp and cross-country skiing lessons for children and their families, outside of school hours and during school holidays. I have noticed in recent years that teachers and parents have become increasingly interested in this approach. It is definitely emerging, ” says Maria Nacher.

If you would like more information on these projects or to contact Les amis de la montagne, see the links at the bottom of the article.

The Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation and its many projects

When we talk about ecology, pacifism, solidarity and democracy in the world of education in Quebec, a name automatically comes to the surface. It was that of Monique Fitz-Back (1949-2005) who was, among other things, the co-founder of the Green Establishments Brundland (EVB-CSQ). Since 2006, there is a non-profit organization, the Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation which aims to continue its work. I offer here a portrait of the organization and its learning projects in contact with nature, each more interesting than the other.

The Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation is an organization that has been raising awareness of sustainable development since 2006. ” We have, among other things, actions to mobilize young people and we are creating educational tools to encourage teachers to talk about the environment in class. To enable young people to become committed eco-citizens, they must develop a link with nature. And what better, in our opinion, than the school environment, where they spend a large part of their time, to develop this relationship daily, ” says Julie Moffet, project manager at the Foundation.

Photo: Julie Moffet, project manager at the Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation

According to its website, the organization’s mission is to promote education about the environment and a healthy environment from a sustainable development perspective. To do this, in addition to the elements highlighted by Ms. Moffet, the Foundation finances mobilizing educational projects and supports young people in their projects. She also organizes creative fundraisers to achieve these goals.

One of Ms. Moffet’s projects is the creation of a website which should officially be launched by Christmas, and whose objective will be to equip primary and secondary teachers first. “This site will include a bank of collaborative activities, case studies, portraits of schools and individuals who make the difference, etc.,” she tells us. The goal is to allow all teachers to take a first step towards outdoor educational activities. The site address will be as follows: www.seignerdehors.ca.

To the question what would be the ideal of a class according to her, the passionate of teaching in outside answers: “An ideal class for me would be a class where the teachers, like the pupils, are researchers. Where we start from the curiosity of children, their imagination, their context, their environment, their neighbourhood to get them, precisely, to ask questions, to find answers. I think there are really skills in the sense that we need to develop more: curiosity, critical thinking too. We must bring our young people outside to allow them to move. Young people are made to be outside, to move, to play, to ask questions, to take risks. An ideal class is a class where the subjects are broken down and where the teachers are present to support the learning that young people want to do, where they are fed. I think that in this sense, the individualization of learning, the pedagogy by projects and the approach by surveys represent the solution”.

Outdoor conference to learn in the open air and challenges!

In February 2019 was held, in St-Jean-de-Matha, the very first edition of the Open Air Learning Symposium, organized, among others, by the Monique-Fitz-Back Foundation and which brought together a little more than 200 people from all over the province. This first edition presented numerous conferences allowing participants to initiate themselves to the concept of outdoor learning or to share their experiences with other people interested in the issue. “This connection to nature, teachers need it, and they are seeing more and more that young people also need it,” insists Ms. Moffet. And although more and more schools are doing outdoor educational activities; we only have to think of the explosion of outdoor classes, educational gardens and vegetable gardens or of these physical education teachers who abandon indoor gymnasiums as soon as the weather permits, it must be admitted that certain challenges delay the explosion of the phenomenon.

In April 2018, the Foundation did a survey to help it better understand the reasons behind this fact. Several elements emerged from this survey, but two main points were named several times. “The lack of training is the point that worries the teachers the most. How do I manage my classroom outside? How do I prepare? How do I tie in with the curriculum. These are as many questions as ask the teachers”, says Ms. Moffet.

The other point is, for the project manager at the Foundation, a question of perception: ” the teachers will see risk management and classroom management outside as something very, very big. Then we will have to deconstruct the myths in relation to this approach. You do not have to leave for a full day or go camping to do intervention in an outdoor setting. Just going out into a math class to implement the measurement by calculating the area of ​​the schoolyard for example can be enough”, she says.

It is true that for it to work well outside, you have to, in a way, adapt your approach, this is really what seems to be the source of the fears and uncertainties of the stakeholders. This is unknown to them because they have learned a teaching model where we are inside, in a classroom and where the teacher transmits information. Outside, we are really more in a collaborative base, an experimental approach. We take scientific steps, we ask ourselves questions, we test our hypotheses concretely. It’s a different approach, ”she believes. However, the benefits are enormous! First for the teacher who can vary his teaching methods and improve his own well-being, then for the student who suddenly becomes very committed and very motivated in his learning”, she enthuses.

Currently, in Quebec, this type of learning is not integrated into the teacher training curriculum and is transmitted only in continuing education, hence the value of a conference like this one. On the other hand, according to Ms. Moffet, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education shows an interest in integrating its learning into the BAC. He now recognizes the importance of the outdoors and nature in children’s development, even if a higher education program is not changed by snapping your fingers. There is hope, ” she says.

Pending these changes, Ms. Moffet considers that many advances are made in the province: “What we see again is that there is a real desire to redevelop the spaces of the schoolyard to have more greenery, more science outside, real learning areas that will be able to serve more people.These initiatives are not always well publicized, but many beautiful things are emerging! ”, she concludes.

For more information on the second edition of the Open Air Colloquium to learn in the open air or to register, see the following link. The conference will take place on February 7 and 8, 2020 at Lac Delage: https://www.feepeq.com/fr/colloque?fbclid=IwAR0VwsCqHUjrP45bvVCOaxNVHC6ylgxIoNKHMK82SV3XloF7E2FbTH8zevE

For further!

Friends of the mountains: https://www.lemontroyal.qc.ca/fr

Program for:  les écoles des amis de la montagne: https://www.lemontroyal.qc.ca/fr/activites/activites-pour-les-ecoles-et-les-groupes-de-jeunes

Activities for children and families at Mount Royal:
https://www.lemontroyal.qc.ca/fr/activites/enfants-et-familles

Fondation Monique-Fitz-Back:
https://fondationmf.ca/

Apprendre et jouer dehors, groupe Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/756344561131365/

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