THUNDER BAY – With field trips involving bus travel indefinitely suspended, students at Lakehead Public Schools are effectively cut off from the board’s outdoor education centre 20 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
That hasn’t stopped staff at the Kingfisher Lake Outdoor Education Centre from delivering some rewarding outdoor experiences.
The centre’s four full-time staff have adapted programming usually delivered on the spacious, isolated Kingfisher grounds off Highway 527 for schoolyards and parks during the pandemic.
It’s been a challenge, said lead instructor Kelly Henderson, and she feels for students who might not be getting quite the unique experiences the centre typically offers.
“It’s kind of this rite of passage in their elementary school experience,” she says of the two-night stays usually enjoyed by Grade 6 students.
The Ministry of Education has directed schools to avoid field trips that involve group transportation during the pandemic. Once that changes, visits could likely resume with precautions like capacity limits and distancing, Henderson said.
“The issue is more in the transportation of students,” she said.
The overnight trips are a hallmark for the centre, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
However, it also offers a variety of day programs for students of all ages tied to the curriculum, with each school allocated time at the facility
Their site includes a number of classrooms and meeting areas, a kitchen building, and sleeping cabins, as well as nature trails and access to two lakes and a black spruce bog.
Henderson calls the centre a “brilliant vision” by past generations of school board leaders, who saw the value of outdoor learning long before the stream of studies demonstrating its benefits.
Outdoor learning is proven to enable different learning styles and promote community and team-building, as well as direct outdoor survival and recreation skills, Henderson said.
That’s in addition to the well-established mental health benefits of time outdoors – research has shown even being exposed to images of nature promotes relaxation, she noted.
With the pandemic causing additional stress, those benefits are more needed than ever, she said.
In the fall, the Kingfisher team began conducting school visits, bringing outdoor programming to the school yard and helping students explore ways to connect with the natural environment in an urban setting.
That can involve games based on boreal forest animals for younger grades, and bird studies, orienteering, showshoeing, and survival games for older kids.
The visits are less immersive than what students would get at Kingfisher, but staff have been able to connect with more classes than usual.
They’re now moving to incorporate opportunities for virtual learners.
To help support outdoor opportunities, Kingfisher staff also developed resources for public school teachers to conduct learning outdoors.
“I think teachers are really receptive to it,” Henderson said, particularly during milder weather in the fall.
Incorporating outdoor time into students’ daily routine at school can help build comfort and confidence among students, helping them tune in to seasonal changes and learn to better prepare for weather conditions.
If there’s been a silver lining to the past year, it’s likely in finding those new ways to engage students, which Henderson expects will remain valuable after the pandemic has subsided.
“The beauty is everything we’ve done can be used down the road,” she said.