Where We Step

Why Environmental Education Matters

Written by Jacoba Buist, Ontario Program Coordinator
Edited by Madison Martinez, Communications and Administrative Coordinator

June 20, 2023

Nature Academy class walking, pulling a cart of nets behind them.In the last three years, A Rocha Ontario’s environmental education programs have grown in huge ways. We’re currently running five programs: Operation Wild, Field Trips, Wild Things Day Camps, EarthKeepers Club and Nature Academy. Every year, we see more and more new participants join our programs for the first time. What’s even more exciting to me is the students who are returning. Watching these participants grow, learn, and develop deep connections with the Cedar Haven Eco-Centre gives me so much hope for a flourishing world.

My favourite program is Nature Academy, A Rocha Ontario’s outdoor school. In the spring and fall, kids show up to Cedar Haven Eco-Centre every Wednesday to spend a full day learning outside. Recently, I decided to ask our students why what we do is important.

Let me set the scene. It’s lunch time. Thirty -five kids and I are sitting around the fire pit, and it’s chaotic. Kids are scarfing down their sandwiches so they can join their friends in the Nature playground or climbing trees, others are on their hands and knees searching for four and five leaf clovers. They’re all yelling and jumping and telling each other about what they’ve been learning in their classes this morning.

I sit right in the middle, so I can see everyone all at once, and kids run up to me with stories of the day. This Wednesday, I have a question. “FRIENDS!” I announce, “What do people need to know about Nature Academy? Why is what we do here important?”Nature Academy class standing in a semi-circle facing Jacoba. Some students are raising their hands.

A full chorus of answers hit me all at once:
“I like spending the whole day outside”
“I like looking at the eggs in the nest boxes”
“I like the MUD!” piped up one little girl.

Once the barrage of voices had calmed down a bit, I turned to Noah, one of our older students, and asked what he thought. He says, “I think it’s important to know where you’re stepping in the forest cause you could accidentally step on a jack-in-a-pulpit”

That blew me away. Nature Academy is about learning where we’re stepping.

My first experience in the woods of Cedar Haven was in 2017. Up until then, the forest was a big green unknown. The trees were just trees, the plants blended into the background. I had no idea where I was or who was there with me. Since then, slowly but surely, I’ve met the forest. When I go on walks through it now, I wander amidst the familiar cedars and notice when I approach the big old beech tree. I can count on my pillbug friends to be waiting under logs for me, sometimes accompanied by an eastern red backed salamander or my favorite: the Rudiloria Trimaculata, a millipede that does not yet have a common name. I know where I’m stepping now, and who I will meet there. But I wouldn’t have been able to have that experience without narrowing my focus a bit.

For example, did you know that there are over 60,000 species of trees in the world? There are 140 native species in Canada. And at Cedar Haven, we’ve identified 30. I can’t learn 60,000 species. If I tried really hard, I might be able to learn 140. But 30? I can do that. Something special happens when we focus our lens a bit and get to know a place – we have the opportunity to really know it.

Two girls sitting on a fallen log.That’s what Noah was getting at, I think. Learning to know Cedar Haven gives us a chance to focus our scope and practice knowing what we’re stepping on. It teaches us to know, to love, to care, and to move back out into the world with courage, awe, and hope.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes “People often ask me what one thing I would recommend to restore relationship between land and people. My answer is almost always ‘Plant a garden’…A garden is a nursery for nurturing connection, the soil for cultivation of practical reverence. And its power goes far beyond the garden gate – once you develop a relationship with a little patch of earth, it becomes a seed itself.

Nature Academy class sitting in a circle in a field. Some students raising their hands.The Cedar Haven Eco-Centre is not a garden, but it is a patch of earth that we have chosen to know, love, and care for. It’s a patch of earth where kids play in the mud, pick the flowers, and drink tea from the hemlock leaves. It’s a place where they are challenged to look where their feet are going, consider the value of a spider, and make decisions on how to leave the place better than they found it.

And I hope that those experiences become seeds that grow into flowers of respect, patience, humility, integrity, courage, dependence, wonder and hope.

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