alice

Alice Edwards works to untangle a fishing line caught in brush on the shore of Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho during a Painter family reunion in August. Alice, who just turned 8, is no stranger to outdoor activities.

My granddaughter Alice turned 8 last week and was asked what she wanted to do for her birthday. She wanted a party with her friends.

But her idea of a party was to take five classmates (and a few mommies) on an overnight backpacking trip to a remote cabin.

They all thought it a reasonable request and hiked 4 miles into the woods to a backwoods cabin with no running water or electricity to eat tacos for dinner and pancakes for breakfast. Each child carried their own gear on their backs.

“They all knew the trees, and plants and how to confidently cross streams and ice and take care of themselves, and never whined,” my daughter Leah Painter said of the trip with her daughter Alice.

This group of kids and moms live on the Sunshine Coast north of Vancouver, British Columbia. They participate in the NEST program at Davis Bay Elementary School in Sechelt, British Columbia, where they do outside learning activities four out of five days most weeks. NEST stands for Nature Education for Sustainable Todays and Tomorrows.

“The school is only two blocks from the ocean with a salmon spawning creek and a half block from forest trails along that creek,” Leah told me via email. “So far this fall they have gone on mushroom hunting trips (with delicious results), watched a barred owl while hiking, seen many types of birds, seals, whales and salmon spawning. They have nature journals that they do lessons in while out. They also have an aboriginal education teacher who meets them outdoors once a week to teach them songs, words, uses of plants and more.”

My younger grandson also attends the school and loves it. I was thinking, where were these schools when I was a kid? Apparently in Canada. Actually there are similar programs in schools in our region. One that comes to mind is the Mountain Academy of Teton Science Schools in Jackson, Wyo., and Teton Valley, Idaho.

“I can’t say enough good things about the program,” Leah said. “It is really exceptional and one of the longest running and best in the province. People usually ask how my kids are doing math or learning to read if they are outside so much, which I find kind of funny. I’ve never met so many kids that retain what they learn like this group. The experience being in nature when you learn a word or math problem and then can relate it to that mental story is so cool. And their knowledge of the outdoors is incredible.”

At a time when many preach about getting our children exposed to the natural world, here is a school that is not just giving the idea lip service. This kind of educational experience seems quite beneficial. It confronts children at a young age with real things in an experiential way. I’m thinking that typical education systems in America could learn from this approach.