This past April, the students and educators of the Laboratory School at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study decided to opt out of Earth Day.
For many years, the children at the JICS Lab School celebrated Earth Day with activities such as planting pansies along the front garden with their “special friends,” a schoolwide program that connects older and younger students around shared learning experiences. No one thought to challenge what seemed to be an agreeable and picturesque yard beautification and community building project.
With three generations of learners housed under one roof, the ever-expanding historic mansion bustles with 200 children from Nursery to Grade 6, teachers, teacher candidates, researchers and staff. All of them are united around a shared commitment to exploring what is possible in education. Since 1925, the Laboratory School has spearheaded a child-centered and inquiry-based approach to learning, which ripples into the public education system that they are mandated to serve.
The institute’s decision to move beyond Earth Day was not because of apathy about that special day, but because of an environmental education initiative housed at the Lab School, called Natural Curiosity.
In 2011, the initiative launched the first edition of its widely popular resource for educators, Natural Curiosity: Building Children’s Understanding of the World through Environmental Inquiry. Now in its ninth year, the Natural Curiosity program published an update: Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition: The Importance of Indigenous Perspectives in Children’s Inquiry. Reflecting three years of deep reflection and dialogue Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition celebrates learning in Mother Earth as an entry point for Truth and Reconciliation.1 2
Written in extensive collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge-keepers and scholars, the second edition strives to elevate the environmental education conversation by including more Indigenous perspectives to support learning on and from the land, and also renewing the pedagogical framework proposed in the first edition with updated research and perspectives.
“Selfishly,” says Richard Messina, the Principal of the JICS Laboratory School, “this book was created to challenge us.”
This April, the Lab School invited Doug Anderson, who brought the Indigenous lens in Natural Curiosity, and Paul Richard of Feastfire Gardens, an Indigenous gardener, to spark a conversation with the staff about meaningful ways to reclaim the school’s outdoor spaces. Foregoing regular summer landscaping, the project worked to rejuvenate the school’s local land to include diverse cultural and ecological perspectives, and to reflect the collective vision of our children, educators, and parents. For example, there was talk about what animals the children would like to see and hear at the school, and what kind of stories — and whose stories — come from this place.
“(We) realized that it was not enough to simply layer an Indigenous perspective on our own fixed way of doing things. We began to see our values and practices through other eyes, and this triggered a process of rethinking or refining what was most important about our philosophy and practice. We had never intended to freeze our approach; our beliefs and practices remain living, breathing, dynamic processes that are inevitably and repeatedly revised, as our school, like all schools, builds relationships with changing communities in changing times.”
— Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition
Admiring the root system
The kindergarteners were first to roll up their sleeves. The final week of school buzzed with their questions and laughter as they yanked out the ornamental hostas in the front garden, which were then taken home by various community members. The soil beds were cleared for new plants the community decided to invite — plants that are native to the land, are ecologically distinct or significant, have medicinal properties, convey important cultural stories, songs and teachings, or simply, delicious.
Summer staff and parents who live in the neighborhood volunteered to water the seedlings over the summer. “Place-based Education” was chosen as the theme of summer professional development, and educators were asked to re-read the section in Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition on experiential learning. The goal was to increase group knowledge around the following questions: What does place-based education mean to us? What more do we need to know and what relationships should we further develop? How can we as a community research and design, and deepen our connection with our outdoor school spaces? How will we celebrate the Earth differently this year?
In addition, the 2nd Edition of Natural Curiosity challenged the community to ask this fundamental question: How do we help children reclaim the local world as their own family?
The start of the new school year converged with new beginnings. Today, if you are in a rush, you might walk right past the smell of sweetgrass that carry the Indigenous histories of this land, bearberries that can help relieve a tough winter cold, kale that can save an evening trip to the grocery store, and new pollinators chit-chatting in the blossoms.
If you walk slowly enough, you will surely notice a small metal sign beside every single plant with its English name, scientific name, and a blank space. This blank space is a testament of our community to what we do not yet know. It is an invitation for to adults and children to have difficult and truthful conversations about this land. It is a promise to continue the meaningful relationships that led us to this point in our learning. Most importantly, it suggests the celebration we must share and cherish with our children, every day beyond Earth Day, as we move towards Reconciliation in a good way. This is our inquiry.
Photo credits: Zach Pedersen
Additional Reading and Resources
NATUREHOOD: Rediscovering Nature in Your ‘Hood
THE CONSERVATION OF CONSERVATION — and the Rejuvenation of Conservationists
A HOMEGROWN PARK GROWS IN TORONTO: Suzuki Foundation Launches Ambitious Do-It-Ourselves Campaign
CHILDREN AND NATURE WORLDWIDE: A Shared Vision
THE WORLDWIDE CHILDREN AND NATURE MOVEMENT: A Home for Hope
Commentaries here and elsewhere on the C&NN website are offered to inform readers and to stimulate new thinking and debate. C&NN does not officially endorse every statement in every commentary.
1 Saskatchewan Cree and Dene Elders believe the common expression “on Mother Earth” continues the subtle colonization they experience from Anglophones. The expression “in Mother Earth” is closer to their Indigenous meaning. Similarly, the phrase “on the land” becomes “in the land.” (Natural Curiosity 2nd Edition, p.6)
2 Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a component of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Its mandate is to inform all Canadians about what happened in Indian Residential Schools. The Commission documented the truth of survivors, families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience. Reconciliation is an overall objective of the Commission, hoped to be achieved through activities such as public education and engagement, commemoration and recommendations to the parties. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2018)