I am on the Steering Committee of a group called Wild About Vancouver, brainchild of our fearless leader, Dr. Hart Banack, UBC. This is a particularly good opportunity because I get together with people who experience the concept of #GetOutdoors on so many different levels. Our conversation started with a goal of organizing an outdoor festival to get people of all ages out as participants and stewards of our amazing city, Vancouver, British Columbia. Yes, Canada for those of you familiar with another Vancouver, south of our border. Vancouver in itself provides many opportunities for outdoor activity and is widely known for the active lifestyle of it’s residents. The outdoors provides many possibilities to enhance mental health, physical well-being, environment awareness and action, as well as curricular instruction.
I am writing this blog on the deck of my father’s cabin in the Eastern Sierras at the doorstep of Yosemite. Just like my first visit at 9 years old and ever after, I am awake before anyone else. This was one of my favorite places to be when I was a little girl on visits with my older sister down south to see my father, step-mother, and later younger siblings. I could get up and out. No burglar alarm to be dis-armed. There were discoveries to be made and other early risers in the world. And I had energy to expend. Lots and lots of energy. Cabin life allowed for that to be a natural part of life. We hiked beyond the waterfall. Rowed. Played “Kick the Can” endlessly with the other cabin kids. Tried to steer the motor boat clear of the dangers of pipes hidden in reeds, sand bars and trees in the lake and on the “jungle cruise” aka stream. Fishing was a challenge for me unless we were casting and then reeling those rainbow trout in. I was a high activity kid. As an educator and a Mom, I had a personally tested strategy of using the outdoors as a way to increase focus in the classroom and to get kids to sleep at night.
I carried the habit of running, biking, hiking, and physically challenging myself into adulthood. I learned as an adult that no one actually cared how you did at something. Sometimes just trying was a victory. I did my first Terry Fox 10 km Run for Cancer Research at the urging of my husband. I believed passionately in the cause. I watched Terry run on the nightly news and my Mom had already suffered her first bout of breast cancer. I hit the 9 km mark and thought I was going to have to stop when a volunteer on the sideline yelled “good form”. That carried me to the finish line with renewed energy, through many Sun Runs, My First and only Triathlon at Cultus Lake, and getting back to running after pregnancies and injuries. Experiences skiing during my high school years, made learning to snowboard achievable. Familiarity on my bike made the bike trip through the Prince Edward Island a glorious adventure. A willingness to try some new physical challenge frequently ended with an increased sense of pride. When that didn’t happen, it resulted in a good story, frequently filled with laughter.
When I graduated from the University of British Columbia, it was the 80’s and very difficult to get a teaching job in Vancouver. I did another year at UBC to get a diploma in English Education while continuing to worked in a daycare / out of school care centre. My quest “to teach” was infused with my supervision responsibilities. I got my Class 4 driver’s license and we took those pre-schoolers all over the lower mainland of Vancouver to explore. School aged kids were welcomed to Sparetime Fun Centre after school and organized into clubs. We went outside to collect materials for arts and crafts. We ran. We danced. We played. We learned. By the time I got a full-time job at 22, learning through play indoors and outdoors was a well-established part of my understanding of how you establish rapport and create bridges between experience and curriculum.
I did my mandatory “out of town” practicum in Abbotsford, British Columbia, because I could stay for free with my paternal grand-parents. When I had my son, I wanted to be closer to home and started working in Coquitlam, where we had purchased our first home. When our youngest daughter went off to Queen’s University, my husband and I promptly moved back to Vancouver where I grew up and both of us lived, prior to kids. The place I was teaching, determined how I went about teaching the curriculum. In Abbotsford, background experience of students included experiences with gardens, cows, berry picking, farms and the ever-present smell of manure from spring to fall. In Coquitlam, salmon spawning in streams, raccoons in garbage, bear awareness when hiking or running in the park, and deer wandering on roads was common place. In Vancouver, walking and biking as a preferred mode of transportation, many local mountains for skiing and snowboarding, beaches, seagulls, crows and ethnic cuisine permeates life. This awareness of place has increasingly become part of education as we have reflected on how we incorporate understandings that are implicit in the Indigenous cultures that were present long before Canada emerged as a country.
The location of the school in British Columbia impacts how many Indigenous students attend. This sometimes provides a block for staffs trying to authentically incorporate Indigenous teachings into the curriculum. However, the sense of place provides an entry point for all students to gain insight into Indigenous ways of knowing. Examining how the place we live impacts our experiences, lends itself to going outdoors and considering our present and historical context. Many things in life cannot be anticipated or guaranteed with confidence. If you live in Vancouver, I can guarantee that it will rain and I can even tell you what that smells like. As a 6-year-old in Venice, my daughter looked up at me and smiled and said “It smells like home, Mummy”, when it started to rain. These understandings over time are the things we can learn from the stories from our local Indigenous people. Medicine Wheel teachings that have been incorporated into many Indigenous cultures have much to teach about how we make decisions, resolve conflict and achieve mental health.
My mother was in the hospital awaiting a procedure when I was called into the room to calm her down.
My response, “Breathe, Mum…No. Not like that. Into your abdomen… You know…Yoga, breathing. No. Not like that.”
My mother’s exasperated response: “You mean I’ve been breathing wrong my whole life?”
The poor nurses came running when we both burst out in uncontrollable laughter with tears running down our faces. They thought they had lost us both. However, there is a reason that the Japanese have taken the world by storm with “Shrin-yoko” or “forest bathing” since the 1980’s, yoga practices have become common place for people of all religions, and Indigenous teachings to improve physical and mental health are being considered. They teach contemplative practices and breathing that is very much centred on experience in nature. As a special education teacher and school principal, much of my work has been teaching students how to self-calm BEFORE problem solving. The first step is always to slow down breathing and learn what strategies work for you. My first go to strategy is physical activity but all of my students can tell you that a pot of Earl Grey tea works wonders for me. The trick is to have more than one strategy that works for you.
We have many amazing educators on the Wild About Vancouver Steering Committee. Although I have many years of experience in education from kindergarten to the university level, as a classroom teacher, administrator and university instructor, I am constantly learning from our committee members who come with varied experiences and approaches to how they get children to pay attention to the nature around them. Although I can’t prioritize what is most important about experiences outdoors, I strongly believe it is our success in getting children to pay attention that has the most significant impact on teaching curriculum. When we closely consider something, we come up with the best questions. The best questions result in the deepest learning and meaningful discovery. Engaging with nature is a catalyst for curiosity and the learning that comes with it.
Wild About Vancouver Committee members have all come together because we love Vancouver and want to fully engage people of all ages outdoors in all our city that has so much to offer. What we believe is most important varies with who you are talking to on the Steering Committee or what participant. Our ideas and suggestions are very contextual in that we are sharing what we know as Vancouverites. We have a one week long Wild About Vancouver Festival every year with a grand WAV event in the city. However, the learning and the application of this learning is relevant in any context. I have learned so much from participating in twitter chats and blogs originating in England and Germany. I have also taken from Reggio Emilia early education teachings with roots in Italy by doing lots of reading and visiting the Opal School in Portland, Oregon. And I’m pondering Wild About Vancouver at my Silver Lake playground in the East Sierras on the California – Nevada border. This model of celebration of outdoor activity takes place in many cities. The Wild About Vancouver model takes it one step further by incorporating a celebration of the outdoors with a striving to deepen the learning we take from nature in all aspects of our lives.
Please include us in your you tweets about Outdoor learning @WildAboutVan and tag us with #getoutdoors and #outdoorlearning in all social media posts. For you Vancouverites, we are always looking for participants and Steering Committee members if you are so inclined. Check us out at https://www.wildaboutvancouver.com/
Enjoy the day and #getoutdoors