On the Blanket of Mother Earth: First Nations Environmental Education

Tanya Leary, Gina Marucci, Janice McDonald, Lauri Williamson

Two times a week grades 3, 4, and 5 students, dressed for the bush, finish their lunches and load into the school van. They are taking part in the Mother Earth Mentoring Program, a “culture-nature-awareness- experiential learning-critical thinking” program that is part of a pilot project at Waabgon Gamig First Nation School on Georgina Island. The project combines in-class learning with outdoor education, connecting the standard Ontario curriculum with First Nations ways of knowing. It has had an enormous impact not only on the students, but also on the culture of the school and the local First Nation community on Georgina Island. “Akinoomaagzid,” the traditional name of the program given by respected Elder and native language teacher Barb McDonald translates as “The Earth is our Teacher.”

The school van transports the children to one of the outdoor classrooms located on the island – places like the SugarBush Trail, the Nanabush Trails, the quarry, or the beach. This is where students’ classroom learning connects with the environment. Upon arriving at their destination, students often lay tobacco and ask Mother Earth for permission to enter the bush before they begin exploring and applying their lessons. After an afternoon of exploring, the students gather into a closing circle and give an appreciation for the day. The circle is often the most powerful moment of the day. The following day students reflect on their adventures by documenting their questions, researching the bugs they have found, writing journal entries, recording video, or making paintings.

Throughout the week, the seeds for the outdoor lessons are planted in the classroom. Two classroom teachers, an amazing team of support staff, parents, community members, Elders, and Coyote Mentors (from the Stick and Stones Wilderness School and Earth Tracks) spend their days planning, evaluating, assessing, and documenting the program. A strong academic morning with math and literacy blocks, is followed by afternoons in the outdoors. Curricular expectations in science, social studies, arts, health, and physical education are integrated into the afternoon program, and are often linked into the morning block by literacy, real-life math problems, hands- on projects, and classroom discussions. For instance, when students study Canada and the World, they learn the basics of mapping in the classroom. Then while in the bush, students create a “songline” of key features along a trail that will help them map their base camp in their mind’s eye. Students learn basic mapping skills in a way that engages multiple intelligences.

Differentiated instruction is at the forefront, and the practice of critical inquiry has become second nature to students. Shy students become leaders, weak writers become reporters, busybodies become photographers, and the students who dislike insects and mud go home filthy with a “bug box” to share



teacher sitting with young students in a circle on top of leaves outside

Muskoka is an ideal place for an outdoor classroom.

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Several science and technology strands lend themselves directly to outdoor experiences. Students need to be able to make observations, collect data, and test hypotheses in nature.