By AMANDA GIBB
Toronto Nature School is offering programs for the 2021/2022 school year to help children connect to nature and the world around them.
Julia Donnelly O’Neill, a teacher who worked for the TDSB for 10 years, founded Toronto Nature School in fall 2020 after noticing how children responded positively to learning in an outdoor setting.
“I was teaching an outdoor kindergarten class…I noticed when I was outside with the kids how engaged they were and interested they were in the topics. And then when we would go inside if it was super rainy, it was almost like teaching different kids once we switched spaces,” said Donnelly O’Neill.
She said the children’s enthusiasm for outdoor learning piqued her interest in the Forest School movement and outdoor education.
“I live in the neighbourhood and being so close to the Beach, it seemed like an awesome spot to start the program, and then with the pandemic it seemed like the perfect time for kids needing this program,” she said.
Toronto Nature School’s indoor space is located at 2245 Queen St. E., and the Beach and Glen Stewart Ravine are frequent excursion areas for Donnelly O’Neill and enrolled children.
A typical day in the program involves meeting up with the children outside or in Toronto Nature School, talking about a topic to explore that day, and heading out to a location to explore.
“We’ll talk about a topic usually related to the seasons, for example, birds migrating…then we’ll head out…with that focus on birds migrating we’ll observe what we’re seeing around the waterfront, the kids will have time to explore on their own, and we’ll read a story like a fiction or non-fiction book about the topic,” she said.
Donnelly O’Neill said during free time children explore the area and at the Beach that can involve things such as creating in the sand, making rivers, and hands-on activities that give children a better understanding of nature.
“In that time you see the friendship and the camaraderie that’s so good for many of these kids; a lot of them were being homeschooled or were only-children so there’s a learning curve that goes along with the social aspect of that,” she said.
Although Donnelly O’Neill has plans for each outing, the content of the learning can change based on what the children observe.
“We see what happens. As much as there’s a plan, nature is the classroom. You can’t really predict what you’ll see…There is a kind of curriculum involved in that they’ll be writing and reading and talking about living things and life cycles and all that stuff you can learn traditionally from school, but you’re seeing it happen in real life,” she said.
Toronto Nature School offers different programs on different days and times for children ages three through nine, and registration for the 2021/2022 school year is open.
Donnelly O’Neill said that with COVID-19 cases on the rise once again and school reopening fast approaching, she knows that a lot of people are feeling uncertain.
“Unfortunately it doesn’t look like they’re moving the classes outside…that doesn’t seem to be in the plans for now. I think a lot of parents are looking into micro-schools, pods, and alternatives to learning in hopes that they don’t fall back into strictly virtual (instruction) next year,” she said.
Donnelly O’Neill said she’s also interested in partnering with other groups and organizations around the Beach neighbourhood in the interest of teaching the children to understand and protect the Beach environment as they grow up.
To learn more about Toronto Nature School or to register your child please visit https://www.torontonatureschool.ca/