I grew up across the street from Mount Douglas Park in Victoria. After school and on weekends, I disappeared with my English Cocker Spaniel to find blackberry bushes, explore small caves, and discover lesser-known trail systems. As a teenager, I sped down the hills on my bicycle, pretending I was on Endor, the Ewok planet from Return of the Jedi. As a sullen teenager, I found solace surrounded by mighty cedars, pine, ash, maple and willow.
I was recently reminded of all those hours I wandered the woodlands without care when I had the pleasure of filling in as a substitute teacher for the grade 4/5 class at Yaqan Nukiy School.
Across the road from the school is a forested park and, before the morning bell rang, the class was already pressuring me to spend their half-hour of daily physical activity amongst the trees. Though a light rain was starting to fall, and everyone’s pants would get wet from the dense undergrowth, the students were excited to start playing hide ‘n’ seek, building forts, and walking cautiously across a fallen tree that bridged a shallow ravine. The park is big enough that students feel they can disappear, but small enough that they can hear the whistle when it is time to head back to the school. I had no other option but to agree. I think students spend too much time indoors so, before we settled into math class, we nipped across the street and (after a quick head-count) the students spread out in different directions.
For many teachers, allowing upper-elementary students to play in a wooded area without constant visual contact sounds like a nightmare. Many teachers want to keep tabs on their students at all times, and generally opt for either a gymnasium or the confines of a small playground for exercise, but luckily the teachers at Yaqan Nukiy School understand the need for their students to expand their horizons without an adult hovering over them.
Teachers shouldn’t feel guilty about extending playtime and shortening classroom instruction if they choose to spend time in the woods. Opportunities for learning are infinite. One student may find poetry in the way the wind whispers through the leaves; one student may find a renewed interest in science when they examine the bark of a tree; one student may be inspired to learn more about how local First Nations people designed and built the yaksumit, the traditional sturgeon-nose canoe. When break times are strictly teacher-directed, recess time (or daily physical activity) loses its value. Free-play gives students the opportunity to develop social competence. During these times, students not only recharge but also learn to cooperate, communicate, and compromise – all skills they need to succeed academically as well as in life.
While teachers are starting to realize that constant standardized testing may not be the most effective way to encourage a love for learning and homework for its own sake doesn’t do a lot of good, they are also starting to realize that a need to hover and solve all problems that may arise on the playground without first allowing students an opportunity to find their own solution is not beneficial.
Recently, a school in Auckland, New Zealand did away with all playground rules in hopes that students will learn how to set self-boundaries and deal with problems on their own. Students are allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards, and play contact games. Though this decision seems radical, the school is already seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism while concentration levels in class are increasing. The school staff believes that limiting children’s play is harmful to children in the long run because it ignores the benefits of risk-taking.
I don’t want to negate the fine work that the staff of Yaqan Nukiy does within school walls, but time spent in the forest is of vital importance for the students. Some students may suffer twisted ankles or scratched arms, but these things are a part of life and lifelong learning. While the staff and administration of Yaqan Nukiy School understand the need for smaller class sizes and student-led/ activity based learning they also, thankfully, understand the need for discovery and the benefits of play. I applaud them.
Place: Yaqan Nukiy School