May 14, 2014

Kids learn how to discover at outdoor school

As published in Country Routes

Erin native Chris Green has taken his teaching career to a new level, opening his own school to give kids the opportunity of learning in the great outdoors.

The Guelph Outdoor School is located in a forest area south of Stone Road in Guelph, near the Eramosa River as it flows to join the Speed.

The idea is to promote everything from agility to self-sufficiency, a sense of community and a reverence for creation. It is a mentoring approach, focused on doing instead of explaining, providing a rich environment in which the object of study can be experienced.

Instead of regular classroom activities, Green and his assistants are more likely to be giving students the chance to practise archery, carving, rock climbing, playing spoons or catching crayfish in the river. Instead of science lessons about nature, they are more likely to be teaching about wild edible plants or forest survival skills.

Shelf mushrooms, for example, can be used as portable fire starters. Students get the large fungal growths from birch trees, dig a small hole with their knives and drop in a coal from the campfire. It can be carried on a hike, smouldering slowing, then used to start a new fire later on.

“We sneak in some ecology, pointing out connections as we can. Kids will start to see patterns on their own,” said Green, who himself participated in the nearby Scout Camp as a kid. He grew up near Hillsburgh and became a French Immersion teacher, working at Brisbane, as well as in Guelph and internationally.

Outdoor School founder Chris Green shows Liam Shields, 9 (centre) and William Kirby,
also 9, how to turn a shelf mushroom into a live coal carrier. In the second photo,
Liam uses dry grass as tinder to start a fire from the coal later on during a hike.
 In the third photo, Green guides the boys safely to a rocky lookout.

He has also worked as a Personal Support Worker with Trellis Mental Health and Development, as staff for Kerry’s Place Autism Services Youth Camps and with Special Friends in Hillsburgh. He earned a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario and a Post-Graduate Diploma in (Primary) Education at the University of Edinburgh.

He says if he can get kids excited about even just one thing, that passion will lead to curiosity about many things.

“We develop a comfort with the outdoors first – then comes a connection. We teach the art of questioning, of how to find out for themselves,” said Green.

Principals and teachers in regular schools have been very supportive, recognizing that alternative methods can be beneficial, especially for students who are struggling in traditional schools.

“In the classroom, these children act out, can't operate, are punished, evaluated, labelled, and so often medicated,” says Green on his website,

“Outdoors, these same youngsters are suddenly gifted, making sense of multiple events at once: sounds, smells, tastes, sights which are not distractions, but events truly worthy of their attention. It creates a sensational whirlwind of interest, engagement, love of learning, vitality and well-being. They are attending to the stuff of life. It is where the child discovers the natural rhythm of the land and of him or herself.”

The Guelph Outdoor School has been operating since the fall of 2012, with 10-12 kids at a time, with a ratio of one adult to three students.

Green gets three types of participants: those already being home schooled, those in regular school who need an alternative structure and those whose parents want to add an additional angle to their children’s education.

Some come to the Outdoor School one or two days per week, while others come only occasionally or as part of field trips. It is a non-competitive environment designed for 7-14 year olds, Wednesdays through Saturdays during the school year, noon to 4 pm. They also offer a half-day morning program called Goslings for boys and girls 4-7, and opportunities for Youth Volunteers aged 16 and older.

There are March Break and PA Day Activities, Skills Workshops and a Summer Program, in which parents can register their children for single days or full weeks. A workshop for adults called The Art of Mentoring will be held August 19-24.