Feature

Going Outside to Create Tomorrow's Engaged Citizen

Todd McIntosh

Every year I take my grade 6 class to my childhood playground – not the metal monkey bars, swings, or asphalt tarmac that most children think of as a “playground” but the open fields, streams, and forests near Shelburne, Ontario where I spent countless hours exploring,  climbing trees, collecting tadpoles, and building forts.

It was in this carefree world, devoid of adult intervention, that I discovered a sense of freedom and belonging and where my appreciation and love for the outdoors began. The trees, the the water, and the air  were  my textbooks. From them I learned that in nature everything is Interconnected.

With many outdoor centres on the loosing end of the battle of resources, perhaps it’s time to think about how we can teach our children one of the most important literacy skills – environmental literacy! It is an almost impossible task to develop the connection with the environment if  students  are  confined  within  a  traditional classroom.

For me, environmental literacy is much more than an academic understanding of the environment  and  its  role  in  sustaining life  on  earth. It is about engaging students so they question established truths. It’s about helping them make informed  decisions about  the  environment as well as about their own health.

Today, 82 percent of Canadian children under 12 live in an urban area.1 Most have little or no experience of life in a rural setting. Canadians have some of  the highest Internet usage rates in  the  world,  according  to  world-renowned Canadian scientist David Suzuki.2  He reported on  research  that  shows  “per  capita  visits  to national parks (mainly in the USA) have been declining for nearly 20 years – largely as a result of increased time spent watching television and movies,  playing  video  games  and  surfing  the web.”3  The researchers concluded, “We may be seeing  evidence of  a  fundamental  shift  away from people’s appreciation of nature biophilia,4 to videophilia … the new human tendency to focus on sedentary activities involving electronic media.”

 

A unique experience

The relationships and interactions between living things and their natural environment were things that I had the privilege of studying without even knowing I had signed up for the course. For me, it was just part of growing up in a rural setting. But for most of my students, it is a three-day “crash” course that  happens only once  in their time in elementary school.

The Sheldon Valley Outdoor Education Centre is one of five residential outdoor education centres the Toronto District School Board operates. These centres provide a unique opportunity for  inner-city children. Nestled amidst  rolling hills 15 km west of Alliston, Sheldon comprises 79 hectares of  diverse field, stream, and forest habitats.

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