Is That Poisonous? -- An Inquiry at Outdoor School

January 09, 2020

In order to become environmental stewards of the world, one must first learn to inquire about the nature that they live in. It's a curious thing to walk with a student through the forest as they continuously ask you which plants would kill them or not upon consumption. But this process of learning through inquiry, in my opinion, is imperative to developing long term relationships with knowledge, and this remains a strong component throughout all of Cheakamus Centre’s programming.

Why inquiry is important?

When students arrive on Day 1 for the 4-Day Outdoor School (ODS) program, some of them have had previous interactions with nature, others have had close to none, and almost all of them express separateness from it. The general trend in questions and comments in the beginning mostly stem from a place of curiosity, but also fear or even a lack of empathy towards nature:

Is that poisonous? Whoa, why did the fish just do that? Will that kill me? Ew, that's gross! (these are mostly followed by scrunched faces, nose plugging, pretend barfing, and wide-eyed stillness).

Something that I've noticed throughout my time here is a very subtle transition in comfortability with nature that the students go through over the course of 4 days. Although this time is too short to develop a deep-seated connection with the natural world, for many the beginning of that connection is sparked and (we hope that) they leave with a higher probability of becoming an eventual environmental protector. During ODS we provide ample amount of opportunity for inquiry, and as a result there likely isn't a question from a kid that we haven't already heard. To go along with experiential learning, many tools are provided for the children to get their brain gears churning and thinking about exactly what it is they are interacting with and why it is important. A few examples of these tools are as follows:

Food waste talk: Throughout their stay students take a hands-on role in managing their own food waste at meals, and on Day 1 we do a short food waste chat to get them thinking about where their food waste goes at home, why it isn't good for food waste to go in the landfill, and what are good ways to reduce their food waste. Throughout the week, from almost all groups and stemming from the kids alone, there is an obvious effort to reduce their food waste at meal times and to be proud of this undertaking. Every group gets a chance to do the farm chore, where they participate in delivering their food waste directly to Cheakamus farm pigs, Capital and Wilma, thereby completing the 'system's thinking' process of resource to recycled waste.

1. Salmon trapping: Depending on the time of year, some groups get the opportunity to take part in the salmon conservation efforts at Cheakamus Centre’s hatchery, where they are able to physically be in the salmon trap, net the salmon, identify the species and gender, and participate hands-on in the egg-take process (this includes wiping down the fish, scraping the eggs out of the female's stomach, and catching the male's milt in a cup). This exciting time is a highlight for many kids and more often than not it becomes their favorite memory by the end of the week.

2. Birding with binoculars: The fall is the best time of year for bird watching at Cheakamus Centre, where kids will boast seeing 7-10 eagles in a single tree on their bird study. Equipped with low grade binoculars, but binoculars none-the-less, the kids are invited to become inquisitive of the colours, age, shape, size, and behaviour of birds in the area. The kids have been shown to retain the information and knowledge taught to them by answering questions about the age of bald eagles at different stages of their lives later on in the week.

More examples include building survival shelters with their own creative minds and hands, climbing through caves with a helmet and headlamp, paddling a canoe, and many more. Based on my conversations with teen and adult alumni, they don't necessarily remember doing all of these things or the details of the memory, but what's important is that they all remember leaving Cheakamus Centre feeling a new connection to nature and community that they hadn't had before.

By the end of camp, the questions and comments from the students resembles something more along the lines of:

Whoa, look at that eagle! Hey, guess what, I caught a salmon today, OOOooooooooo!, and even the occasional Nature is so cool (Neat-ure!).

Overall, I would say that kids are naturally inquisitive beings and question their experiences and surroundings openly and without hesitation. At a very young age kids are more connected to nature, perhaps in infancy alone, simply because it only takes a few misguided steps down their developmental path to disconnect from the natural world, which unfortunately is all too common. The majority of the youth who come to Cheakamus Centre for the Outdoor School program grew up in and around North Vancouver, which is unique in its provision of an urban upbringing with the potential for outdoor opportunity. Depending on their parenting, some of the kids’ outdoor experiences are very limited, while others have grown up skiing, hiking, biking, or the like and are more comfortable in nature. This generally results in a wide range of outdoor knowledge amongst the campers during ODS, but nonetheless they are all bound to learn something entirely new and useful.

Undoubtedly, these experiences that strengthen their connection with nature are likely to shape the way they perceive and interact with the natural world as they grow older, which will play a significant role in the sustainability of their futures.

Contributed by Cheakamus Centre staff: Program Leader, LJ Fiorita