Some outdoor education programs for students and schools are facing growing pains as overworked teachers struggle to finish on-the-land learning training courses.
Chloe Dragon Smith and Wendy Lahey launched Bushkids in Yellowknife in 2018.
Dragon Smith spoke to the Yellowknife Education District No. 1 (Yk1) board of trustees on Tuesday evening and outlined some of the challenges and successes of the on-the-land courses.
“Out of the teachers that have taken those courses that we offered in 2019, there’s only one that’s actually finished the course,” she said. “What we’ve seen is that the teachers are overloaded and they do need some support and structure to be able to be successful.”
However, Dragon Smith pointed out they’re currently processing additional completed assignments and that in the coming weeks more teachers may be recognized as having completed the course.
The practitioner training course consists of six assignments that can be done individually or by small groups of teachers at their schools. The training is broad enough that teachers can tailor Bushkids and Forest School Canada (FSC) principles to their own school and classes.
Each school offers its own version of on-the-land learning. At J.H. Sissons it’s called the Classe d’Enquête en Plein Air (CEPA) program, which in English means outdoor inquiry-based classroom.
Dragon Smith emphasized that despite the low completion rate, the programs are hugely popular among teachers.
Bushkids is modelled on land-based learning principles. It also has parallels to the Forest And Nature School movement, through which Dragon Smith and Lahey also offer workshops.
Bushkids also holds its own mentoring sessions for students and teachers on some weekdays.
Another issue facing Bushkids is that its leadership structure is changing after Dragon Smith recently moved to the Fort Smith area.
“The support and leadership that I was providing to this movement on the ground in Yellowknife isn’t going to be able to be the same anymore,” she said, although she added that the hiring of two new Aurora College interns to work with Bushkids will assist with leading the program in Yellowknife.
In order for Bushkids to successfully expand further, Dragon Smith explained the program could benefit from funding to enable more Indigenous knowledge holders and community members to contribute to the initiative.
At the same time, Dragon Smith is pleased by how many schools in Yellowknife have adopted on-the-land learning programs. Numerous schools hold on-the-land activities out of wall tents built on school grounds.
“I drive through Yellowknife and I can see wall tents at almost every school that weren’t there a year ago. There’s this upward movement. I think the district is doing amazing work and people within the district are doing amazing work, and that’s why we’ve gotten to this point,” she said. “But with some formal structure and some recognition for what’s going on, I think it would be absolutely unstoppable and amazing and I’d really love to see us be able to move forward with all our energies together.”
Bushkids’ is being recognized Canada-wide as well, and Lahey and Dragon Smith won an outstanding early childhood educators’ award in October from the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication for their work.