Dozens of parents lined up at the doors of the Sooke School District office on Vancouver Island’s West Coast one chilled, rainy evening last February and spent the night under tarps and blankets and with thermoses of hot chocolate—all to land their children spots at a pilot kindergarten program, one that’s part of a quiet revolution in early childhood education spreading across the country. The movement’s main feature? Kids playing in the great outdoors.
In public schools, private schools and preschools from Roachville, N.B., to Red Deer, Alta., and Sooke, B.C., teachers and early childhood educators are rolling out programs where young children spend a big chunk of time exploring the natural world—in some cases, all day, every day, even through the dead of winter. At a time when free play is in a well-documented decline in Canadian kids’ lives, these schools represent a new push to see children leave the formal classroom behind.
In the “nature kindergarten” program at Sangster Elementary School in Sooke, four-year-olds spend each morning in the forest or at the beach, mostly engaged in what’s called play-based learning; teachers develop lessons around whatever captivates the kids: the clouds, pine cones, the anatomy of worms. No one asks when is it time to go inside, says Frances Krusekopf, a public school principal who spearheaded the program’s creation and hired a childhood educator, on a $25,000 salary funded by grants, to help the regular teacher. Amid the heavy downpours of winter, Krusekopf says the kids…
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