Maple Ridge school lets Mother Nature be the teacher

Dozens of Maple Ridge children will be without a school when classes resume next week, but no one is complaining.

That’s because these students, ranging in age from four to 12, are part of a unique experiment in public education that will see school lessons delivered in parks, at picnic tables, alongside streams, under tarps and tents, in gardens, libraries, restaurants, fitness centres and even municipal council chambers, when they’re available. But not inside a regular school building.

It’s called the environmental school project and it’s so unusual that its progress will be monitored throughout this year and into the future by Simon Fraser University researchers, who obtained a $1-million federal grant for that purpose.

School administrator Clayton Maitland said he knows of no similar school anywhere in Canada.

“This is our classroom,” he beamed as he gestured toward the forest during a recent interview in Allco Park, northeast of Maple Ridge city centre.

The concept was approved by the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows board of education last November and quickly attracted enough students for the first year — 60 children from kindergarten to Grade 7 — with more on a waiting list. Maitland hopes enrolment will double next year to 120.

Since it’s a public school, all children are welcome, including those with special needs such as autism and health problems. The only ones who will be refused are those with what is called oppositional defiant disorder because they could pose a safety risk, he said.

Gavin Mulcahy, 9, and his brother Quinn, 5, are among the students looking forward to their new outdoor learning adventure. “We won’t be locked inside a tiny box for six or seven hours a day,” Gavin said, referring to the traditional classroom he attended last year. “Most of our learning is going to be outside, which I’m really excited about.”

Added his father Mike Mulcahy: “Kids thrive in nature, and they shouldn’t be put in a room with a stopwatch to learn things. This is an alternative way of learning that is less stressful for the kids.”

Parents are also expected to be involved with the school — all day, every day if they so desire. Alison Rachel has three children enrolled in the program — Christian, 8, Fiona, 6, and Malcolm 5 — and she said she plans to spend as much time with them as possible.

“The responsibility of teaching really is the parent’s … so I see myself as working with the teachers so we can educate them together. That’s what I like about this — it’s a community providing education,” added Rachel, who home-schooled her kids last year.

The community connections will be strong, Maitland said, with parents and researchers working alongside three teachers and two special-education assistants. The school will be governed by a council of “hearth keepers,” including students, their families, teachers, community educators and SFU researchers.

“Decision-makers will be informed by the guiding principles of the school: place and community, nature, ecology and sustainability, inquiry and possibility, interdependence and flourishing, imagination and integration,” the school’s website says.

The students’ activities will reflect those community connections, with children involved in projects such as clearing parks of invasive species and building duck shelters, Maitland said. But the unusual structure doesn’t mean less emphasis on reading, writing and math. Students will still learn the B.C. curriculum, but they’ll do so in a different way.

“It’s all about choice,” deputy superintendent Laurie Meston said Thursday. “Not everybody will want to go to an environmental school, but not everybody fits into a program from 8:30 to 2:30, either.”

The idea for the school began to percolate in 2008 when Maitland, then vice-principal of Yennadon elementary, and Jodi MacQuarrie, a teacher-librarian at the school who was working on a doctoral degree at SFU, began talking informally about the way the school environment restricts and defines learning and how educators might break out of that box.

They noted that students are often more inspired by activities outside the classroom, such as field trips and camps, but few remember the classroom as being their best educational experience, Maitland added.

They took their idea to SFU, where it captured the interest of educational researchers, and then floated it in the community. Finding support for the concept, the SFU researchers applied and received a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The trustees were the last to climb on board, with a unanimous vote of support late last year.

The school will divide its 60 students into three groups — called families, rather than classes or grades. These families will have 20 students each, from kindergarten to Grade 7.

One or more SFU researchers will be on-site every day — working with the students while also gathering information about their progress, the development of the school and the involvement of parents.

Assistant education professor Mark Fettes said benefits of the research are expected to reach far beyond Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows given the growing interest in teaching children about the environment and raising awareness of ecological issues. The study will also examine the differences between outdoor experiential learning and more traditional textbook learning.

Story by Janet Steffenhagen, Vancouver Sun