YMCA Wanakita branches out to offer Forest School

By Sue Tiffin

Published Feb. 11 2020

YMCA Wanakita a space known to some local kids for its strawberry social Breakfast with Santa event or day and summer camps is about to become much more familiar. The camp has announced a Forest School program intended to open this fall.
Sarah Bell family camp director of YMCA Wanakita said she has been researching Forest School over the past two years and is excited to offer a program with more environmental focus to local kids.
“A lot of our clients that we serve at Wanakita are from afar they’re from the city they’re from Ottawa and Toronto and Hamilton” said Bell. “They come here once they do some recreation and then they leave. But Forest School will be really great because it would provide local kids and local families who don’t often get to see camp with what Forest School [philosophy] sort of terms as ‘regular and repeated access to the same natural space.’ So these kids would come for a certain number of weeks one or two days a week and they’d come to the same place so they’d get a really great connection with nature and more sort of ecological and environmental connection than what we’ve been offering.”

Wanakita is offering Forest School programming as a seven-week program open one to two days a week to be held in Fall 2020 and Spring 2021. The programming will also be offered this year in a pilot program held during the upcoming March Break (March 16 to March 21) and on the remaining PA days this school year May 1 and June 5 from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Bell said the programming is geared both toward kids who already attend public school or to homeschooled kids in the area who might want more experience being outdoors.
Forest School is “[r]eally generally unstructured” she said. “They’re not coming to have a specific lesson about mushrooms or habitats.”
The Wanakita program information online notes it is inquiry-based following the children’s leads throughout outdoor time trail hiking playing in the woods and learning and developing new skills such as animal tracking plant and tree identification shelter building ecology fire building outdoor cooking nature games storytelling reading writing outdoor math crafts and drama.
“It’s also very play-based sometimes we’ll just go out and play for an hour and if they find cool stuff we’ll talk about it” said Bell. “If they just want to be active and not actually learning about stuff that’s cool too but we’ll also have an indoor space for whenever there’s rainy weather or part of the day when we want to do crafts and learning and reading and a bit of writing. It’s not specifically school in that we have specific outcomes. We’re not giving reports or marks or anything like that but [there’s] definitely lots of learning happening and in different ways than they’d be getting at regular school.”

As Bell was researching she looked into the benefits of Forest School an outdoor education approach that originated in Scandanavia in the 1950s and first came to Canada in the early 2000s.
“What are the actual benefits?” said Bell. “They’re just playing outside or climbing trees or lifting over rocks or whatever. But there’s all kind of scientific evidence – people see this all over Facebook about how good being outside is for you. [The list of benefits includes] increased confidence increased problem-solving skills managing risks so whether you’re climbing a big boulder and learning exactly what your body can do those risk management skills will help in other types of risk management whether that’s something physical or something more mental in the future.”
Bell said research shows that Forest School can also lead to increased academic skills as kids have more experiences and more immersion in outdoor play.
“There’s lots of people who seem to be really interested” she said. “I think parents are interested some of them because they’re already connected to nature and they think oh what a great thing my kids could be outside more and others because they don’t know how to be outside with their kids or they don’t like to be outside and they want their kids to be. I think there’s a lot of factors going into it.”
Bell will be one of the instructors of the program which intends to be open to two groups of six kids who vary in age so that kids can learn from each other alongside one adult instructor per group.

Besides her experience at Wanakita over the past decade Bell is also about to complete a Forest School practitioner course and is an Ontario certified teacher.
“I think probably just getting kids outside and actually connecting to nature and having that repeated connection” said Bell of her love for the concept. “They’re really developing their sense of belonging to the place that they’re at. When they are in play-based immersion experiences they develop a sense of stewardship to the land and they want to take care of it which develops better citizens for the future. Just the general connection to nature is something I really value in kids. I also just love teaching in nature and I don’t get to do that enough.”
For more information about Forest School at YMCA Wanakita visit https://www.ymcahbb.ca/Wanakita/Camp-Programs/Year-Round-Camp/Forest-School or contact Sarah Bell at sarah.bell@ymcahbb.ca or 1-800-387-5081.
(A story about At Last Forest School opening at Abbey Gardens this fall ran in last week’s Echo and is also available at haliburtonecho.ca)