North Star Forest School: Outdoor Education and Environmental Stewardship Bring the Classroom Back Into Nature

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2020 has provided an unlikely opportunity to implement a project Scott Matheson (left) and Carly Lowe (right) have been considering for a long time: starting their own Forest School out of the facility at Camp Celtic in Stokes Bay. In October, an entire morning was devoted to apple cider. The students split into groups and divided the work: climbing trees, picking apples, slicing and preparation, grinding and juicing, and finally, taste testing – the goal is to make kids more aware of their surroundings, and to tune into the natural world.
By Zoë Mason, Bruce Peninsula Press

“The original kindergarten—the children’s garden—conceived by German educator Friedrich Froebel in the 19th century, was a place where children learned through play, often in nature,” writes David Sobel in the preface of Forest and Nature School in Canada: A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning. “That idea is fast eroding.”

With kids all over the province facing a strange school year, Carly Lowe and Scott Matheson are hoping to bring nature and the classroom together through their Forest School at Camp Celtic.

The book, a guide for proprietors of Forest Schools across the country, was published in 2014. What was true then is truer now. As the COVID-19 pandemic pushes onto its seventh month in Canada, the idea of school as we know it is fast eroding, as well. 

Across the province, students have uploaded their entire classroom experience into virtual space. Even where the physical classroom persists, it has become a petri dish. Gone are playgrounds, sharing circles, hand holding and team building, replaced instead by face masks, hand sanitizer, and stickers on the floor to help students maintain their six-foot safety shields at all times. It’s necessary and perhaps even life-saving, but it couldn’t be farther removed from nature.

However, for Scott Matheson and Carly Lowe, the pandemic has provided an unlikely opportunity to implement a project they’ve been considering for a long time: starting their own Forest School out of the facility at Camp Celtic in Stokes Bay. 

North Star Forest School has been running for three weeks, but has been floating around as a concept between the two for much longer. For Matheson and Lowe, as well as their 27 pupils, the drastic changes in education this fall have provided them with a chance to combat what Sobel calls “indoor-ification,” and bring nature back into the classroom — or rather, bring the classroom back into nature.

New growth at Camp Celtic

Carly Lowe spent 10 years teaching health and physical education in Ohio before coming North just over a year ago. It was during her time working at other Forest Schools that she came to know and love the concept. For Scott Matheson, outdoor education is the family business. Matheson’s parents were the founders of Camp Celtic, which ran its first camp in 1984. The two share the title of Forest School Facilitator at North Star. They make up the faculty of the school together with Jenna McGuire, an expert in local ecology who lends a hand on Wednesday classes.

Environmental education and the social, philosophical, and psychological benefits of time outdoors are a central part of the Celtic philosophy, and Matheson had always intended to translate that to an educational program for local, school-age kids in the offseason. In the wake of the pandemic, high season at camp looked dramatically different. When Matheson and the rest of the Celtic team found themselves with more time and energy than they would after a typical summer, he saw his opportunity and took it.

“Somehow, it all unfolded,” says Lowe of the school’s beginnings. “Lucky for us, as far as having camp already established, they already have the business, they already have insurance, they have pretty much everything that would be really difficult for somebody who just wanted to start one up on their own out of nowhere to get. With camp, it really was pretty lucky in that sense that we didn’t have to start from scratch.”

A lot of Forest Schools in the province use minimal, public spaces such as parks to host their programs. While any outdoor space is a good one in terms of Forest School philosophy, with 200 acres of land and countless natural features and recreational facilities, Matheson and Lowe already had the foundations in place to build a top-tier outdoor education centre. 

While bringing children to the camp is hardly new for Matheson, year-round operation is breaking new ground for Celtic.

“End of April to the end of September has been our season,” he says. 

“So using this facility in October, November, and all through the winter is definitely brand new,” adds Lowe.

Keeping students coming throughout the fall and winter into the spring is a key part of both the Forest School philosophy and Matheson and Lowe’s personal ambitions of the school. 

“Place-based learning is firmly rooted in the act of connecting children to a particular place through direct experiential contact,” reads an excerpt from Forest and Nature School in Canada: A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning. “The ability to know a place intimately and to return to a natural space again and again, provides children with familiarity while honing their ability to recognize and understand processes of change.” 

“With connection to place comes a desire and sense of responsibility for caretaking and protection,” it continues. “Frequent encounters lead to an increased sense of belonging and, ultimately, to a sense of stewardship for that place, for the broader community, and beyond.”

Developing in students an understanding of and connection to the land is one of Matheson and Lowe’s primary objectives. 

“The whole goal is to make kids just more aware of their surroundings, and to kind of tune into the natural world, because it’s really easy to tune out of it right now with everything else you can tune into,” says Matheson. “And by doing that, by being more aware of the natural world, I think you’d become more aware of your own place in it, and yourself and your relationship to others.”

The idea of interacting with the land and its changing seasons and to derive education from this interaction is precisely their aim at North Star. 

“As seasons change so many things are happening around you,” says Lowe. “And you get to watch winter come and go pretty slowly, if you’re coming every week.”

The school activities are tailored in order to facilitate engagement with and interest in these changes. For example, last week an entire morning was devoted to apple cider. The students split into groups and divided the work: climbing trees, picking apples, slicing and preparation, grinding and juicing, and finally, taste testing. All of the children brought jars and took the fruits of their labour back to their families at the end of the day.

It’s activities like these that provide the children with both much-needed outdoor time and, hopefully, a greater understanding of the things they consume and the earth they come from. It’s far from a novel philosophy — in fact, it’s an ancient one. 

“There is a teaching in every part of creation. It is our task to find it, learn it, and apply it.” The quote is cited to late elder Ken Goodwill, and opens an entire section on Indigenous Perspectives in Forest School teaching. Grounding his teachings in these ancient perspectives is part of what Matheson hopes to instill. 

As part of the initiative, North Star began collaborating with Kikendaasogamig Elementary School in October, who will be a part of Forest School on Thursdays and Fridays. 

“We’re hoping to learn a bunch from their traditional knowledge keepers and weave it into our day to day lessons and activities,” adds Matheson.

“Something I’ve been thinking about is that Forest School forces us to think like our ancestors would have had to think — so, things like the changing in the seasons, and things that we don’t really have to worry about nowadays with all of our technology,” he says. “It brings kids back to that more pre-industrial and pre-technology state of mind. And I think that’s valuable.”

Changing attitudes, nourishing minds

Matheson and Lowe excitedly report that they’re already detecting changes in the attitudes of their pupils after two weeks of Forest School.

“After just two classes, it’s already neat seeing the kids’ awareness of the property and their favourite places that they want to go to,” says Matheson. “I can only imagine for a whole year, they will hopefully just get more and more engaged and take a sense of ownership over it, which adds to the engagement level, I think, and the interest level.”

It’s a change in attitude they hope to see amplified as the connection between child and earth grows.

A typical day at Forest School now consists of two main segments, the morning and afternoon. The day typically starts with a little bit of outdoor free time, followed by a “morning circle” around the flagpole, where they discuss natural observations and environmental topics. Then, it’s lunch. 

In the afternoon, any number of outdoor expeditions. A recent hike took the children to a beaver dam and a flooded trail, which provided Matheson with an opportunity to talk about beaver ecology and to get some hands-on interaction by disassembling the dam and rerouting the flow of the water.

So far, the weather has been perfect. By luck, there’s yet to be a rainy day at Forest School. But Matheson and Lowe are prepared for all contingencies. For winter, they plan to maintain the primarily outdoor orientation of their programming, with plans including snow people and skis. But they also have the indoor facilities to hide away from the cold when necessary.

The outdoor orientation is both part of their philosophy and part of their public health precautions. The goal is to help kids forget about the pandemic, but they’re careful to maintain safe distances and uphold safety directives such as mandatory mask-wearing indoors. 

“When we’re outdoors we say ‘spread your wings!’ If they spread their wings, and they’re within range of someone else spreading their wings, then they’re too close,” says Matheson.

“But I think a lot of kids that do a day of Forest School almost forget about pandemic. It just feels more normal than the life they’ve been living for the past eight months or so. I think it’s a huge refreshing thing for them, to be able to just play and be excited and feel normal again.”

North Star is very much a passion project for both Matheson and Lowe, and they’re both proud of its preliminary success.

“It feels really successful so far, and we’re having a good time, the kids seem to be having a really good time,” says Lowe. “Just by week two, we’ve seen kids already really excited to go to different places and building friendships that you see evolve with these really young kids.”

“Every little tiny thing that you notice seems to feel really good right now,” she adds.

Lowe says that the growth she’s seeing at Forest School can actually translate back to regular school as well. 

“I think a lot of kids haven’t had much social interaction and being allowed to be outside together, it has a huge opportunity for them to grow socially and emotionally,” she says. “Different studies have been done where kids go back to school after a day of Forest School and the teachers are seeing their behavior improve.”

For Matheson, Forest School has meant translating his own love for the outdoors to something he can impart to others.

“It tends to happen naturally — the more time you spend outside with kids, and the more you lead by example and show interest in it, if they look up to you, then they’re gonna want to follow suit.”

There are still spots open for Tuesdays in November and December at North Star Forest School, and registration opens soon for the winter term! For more information, go to http://www.campceltic.ca/forest-school.php

L-R: North Star Forest School Facilitators Carly Lowe and Scott Matheson.