Eco-education through nature: an open-air school

At a time when there is a crying need for wide open spaces, it’s not surprising that eco-education is gaining in popularity among parents and a variety of stakeholders. All over Québec, initiatives are being created and are making a name for themselves, notably the Grand-Mère Nature project in the Capitale-Nationale region.

Nathalie Allard-Pouliot, a nature lover and the instigator of this social project, talks about the benefits of outdoor life for the development and well-being of our children.

Nathalie Allard-Pouliot Alma Kismic | © Sépaq
Nathalie Allard-Pouliot

A vocation

For as long as she can remember, Nathalie, aka Grand-Mère Nature / Grandma Nature, has been steeped in eco-education. Before she even knew the name of the practice, this mother of five, a pre-school educator, a teacher, and an anthropologist by training, had nature as her accomplice and colleague.

"Family has always been at the heart of my life. When I was studying anthropology, my goal was to open a school. I was inspired by methods from all over the world and I wanted to find out what was positive in the education of young people and then pass it on to parents here," recalls Ms. Allard-Pouliot.

Life eventually led her to devote herself entirely to her children; she homeschooled them in the country, without help to boot. "Upon reflection, I was already teaching in a ‘natural’ way, giving my children context, space, and a world of freedom that was part and parcel of the whole deal!" she remembers.

"It wasn't until I returned to the school board in 2000 that I realized my approach was that of the Forest School, created in Denmark in the 1950s. Or that of our ancestors. I also wanted to return to this form of cyclical pedagogy where the head, heart ,and body develop as a whole," she explains.

The very best teacher

The concept behind Grand-Mère Nature stems from countless observations supported by years of experience and training.

A graduate of Cégep de Rivière-du-Loup junior college, Ms. Allard-Pouliot is proud to be part of the first Québec cohort in the field eco-education through nature. Over the years, she has consolidated her expertise in order to help families who wish to reconnect with their environment. Her mission: to give back confidence to parents and show them that there are no better nature ambassadors than them.

"What I was seeing in the schools was alarming. I noticed a significant deterioration in the physical condition of the children due to many restrictions in the gymnasiums or in the schoolyard. I also noticed that parents were stressed and distraught about the needs of their children. For me, this nature deficit coupled with parental concerns confirmed that it was time for kids to go outside and play, to loosen up a whole lot more," she says.

This was all it took to convince Ms. Allard-Pouliot to create a very special project: monitoring and support services, sharing of information, tips and experiences, workshops and networking in eco-education, all offered free of charge. Through the Grand-Mère Nature project, she succeeds in providing guidance and support for families in their daily quest for wide open spaces and fresh air. Moreover, she puts her mission into practice with an approach adapted to the tots she works with at Garderie de Saint-Nicolas daycare centre.

Get out simply and often

As a pre-school educator, Ms. Allard-Pouliot supervises two immersion groups of children aged 18 months to 4 years. From Monday to Friday, rain or shine, they gather at their "base camp" where learning takes place in the open air. This constant adventure inspired these ideas and tips to apply at home.

Nathalie Allard-Pouliot Alma Kismic | © Sépaq
Mathieu Dupuis | © Sépaq

For those little bugs who find playing outside a bore

Parents… keep it simple!

  1. Lead by example by going out with your youngsters.
  2. Do outside what they already like to do inside.
  3. Invite friends! Good company is more stimulating.
  4. Have a shared activity. A family that plays together stays together.
  5. Arouse their curiosity! Why not explore your yard? School-aged children love to find and identify things.
  6. Let your imagination run wild. You’ll create all sorts of unforgettable moments!

Grand-Mère Nature’s Facebook page is chock full of even more concrete suggestions for each season. Here are some of them.

  • The typical ice scraper and snow brush, easy to handle with mittens, is very popular with preschoolers. They can use it to imitate you, to draw with the scraper, or to make snowflakes twirl.
  • Bring out the old utensils: the tried-and-true snow kitchen can keep the family busy for hours.
  • The outdoors is the best place for a game of hide and seek! With so much to see, it's easy to create a hide-and-seek memory game.
  • With recycled materials, one can easily build an insect hotel. This way, the little ones can observe and identify insects, overcome their fears, and more.
  • The rock and rope duo is a good starting point for a host of fun activities.
  • After an outing, colouring and craft projects put your kids' discoveries (dried leaves, spider webs, and the like) to good use.
  • Roll down hills or roll around in the grass.
  • During break time, look around outside, if only for five minutes. Admire the landscape and what lives therein (hello, birds!).
  • To develop your children's fine motor skills, strength, and dexterity, you can get out small tools (chisel, peeler, hammer, drill, etc.) and gradually encourage the youngsters to handle them.

For tots who are always cold

A youngster who’s properly dressed can adapt to any weather! When it’s really chilly, the best trick is to use a multi-layer system: a base layer (clothes that dry quickly, for example); a fleece or woolen jacket; and a reliable warm coat. This way, kids can play outside for hours. Snacks (nuts, cheese, candy bars) and drinks (water, hot chocolate, broth) are other good ways to warm them up.

Dealing with those typically mobile-challenged toddlers requires a few more tricks.

  • Wrap them in a wool blanket.
  • Place a hot water bottle (such as a Nalgene water bottle filled with hot water) nearby.
  • Slip strips of recycled fur into their mittens as hand warmers.
  • Protect them from snow by setting up a tarp.
  • Sit them on garden knee pads.
  • Engage all of their senses by having them participate in sensory games.

For children playing in the city

In an urban environment, nature is not inaccessible. On the contrary, it’s all around us. The proof? Sidewalk cracks are full of life! In fact, a patch of ice can become an improvised skating rink; a balcony, a fortress; two trees, a forest….you get the picture! All you have to do is squat down to your children's level to take in everything that's available to you.

Linda Massamba | © Sépaq
Linda Massamba | © Sépaq
Audrée Larocque | © Sépaq
Mathieu Lachapelle | © Sépaq

For risk management

When playing outside, safety rules are critical. Here are some of them.

  • Manage distances with the "I see you, you see me" instruction.
  • Choose an audible signal for emergencies or hazards.
  • Require three points of support in climbing activities (don't help them; trust them!).
  • Measure that typical wooden stick used as a magic wand or sword. Is it longer than your child's arm? If so, forget it for it's too long!
  • Introduce them to the different types of stones and rocks: those to throw, pick up, and climb. Then they’ll know what to do and what not to do with them.

Having pleasure while respecting nature

Nature is precious, and the more children connect with it, the more they care for it. Simple actions like these can make a big difference.

  • Never go off trail.
  • Set up a play area in a previously used space.
  • Try to leave things where they are.
  • Don’t touch the animals and respect them.
  • Don’t climb trees in winter (they’re sleeping!).

Nature at the service of early childhood

In closing, an important step has just been taken in nature-based education. Thanks to the involvement of some twenty centres for early childhood (CEC) across the province, the Alex frame of reference has been established.

This eco-education bible is packed with information, as well as the many developmental benefits of the practice.

  1. Motor functions: by their intensity, variety, or speed, outdoor games improve children's physical abilities. Kids tend to push their limits.
  2. Social and emotional development: nature allows toddlers to gain confidence and independence. They also learn to recognize certain risks, which reduces impulsivity and increases empathy.
  3. Cognitive development: through free play, children stimulate their creativity and enrich their knowledge of the world.
  4. Health: eco-education has a good many positive effects on children's health. These include better sleep, increased appetite, a stronger immune system, and reduced stress.

"The Alex frame of reference gave the green light to actions that we could or couldn’t carry out in our interventions, particularly with regard to risk taking. It reassures decision-makers and empowers educators who want to embark on the great adventure of eco-education through nature," rejoices Ms. Allard-Pouliot.

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