On the outskirts of Collingwood, groups of students spend their days outdoors learning bushcraft skills, building nature knowledge, and pursuing critter curiosity.
The class’s home base is a one-room schoolhouse preserved in pioneer style – complete with working wood stove – but the classroom is the forest and fields, rivers and streams, and acres of nature outside.
The lesson plan might come from a turtle crossing from little pond to big pond, or it could be the result of someone discovering the sting of a knettle.
An outdoor education is an important supplement to the traditional school education afforded to Ontario students, according to Kim and Matt Simpson, the lead teachers at Free Spirit Forest and Nature School.
“I think every kid is born a naturalist,” said Kim. “It’s important to have space to nurture that.”
The couple has been running the school for five years, and use the property at Bygone Days Heritage Village (86 acres) for forest and nature school classes.
Students are often enrolled in public or private school and attend the forest school once a week.
“Connection with nature and being outdoors is something innate in all of us, and it just needs to be supported,” said Matt.
Students at forest school might spend the day weaving baskets, carving bowls, brewing violet jelly or cooking pesto from garlic mustard. They might make maple syrup or pine pitch glue.
Students learn how to start fires, they learn about the medicinal properties of native plants, and they learn about the relationship between people and nature and how to make a positive impact.
“They get a lot of time to create,” said Kim. “It’s unhindered.”
The teacher-to-student ratio is kept intentionally low with daily class sizes around 13 students aged 3.8 to 12 or older.
“We consider ourselves co-conspirators in their play and learning,” said Matt, adding they will come to the day with a lesson plan, but understand it could change the moment a turtle crosses their path. “We ask a lot of questions … We are discovering alongside them.”
The two have found people learn better when they are engaged or “into” what they are learning, so part of their job is to find out what the students are interested in.
The task isn’t too difficult, according to Matt.
“The kids who come for the first time are just in awe with reverence and excitement,” he said. “I don’t think they realize how much they are learning.”
The concept of learning through nature has also inspired a new forest pre-school for kids who are too young to attend Free Spirit Forest and Nature School.
Kimberly Edwards is part of the team - including Collingwood’s Elephant Thoughts - launching the 100-Acre Wood Forest Preschool this September.
The concept is to open a non-profit, licensed preschool and daycare for toddlers aged 18 months to junior kindergarten. There’s a school building on site being repurposed and it will house “open-ended” toys made from natural materials, and maybe even some “toys” the students find outside.
During the day, the toddlers will explore the property, learning about the forest and nature surrounding them in every season.
“It will be place-based learning, they’ll be in the same place and see the changes,” said Edwards. “There will be free-play, and child-led learning.”
The idea for the preschool came as a result of Edwards’ own experience trying to find childcare for her own child.
As an outdoor educator, and with a background running community gardens, she values time spent outside and a connection with nature.
“This model really fits our family value,” she said. “We would bring our son into the woods and he would peel bark off a tree or stand on the logs. That kind of learning is bang-on for me.”
The Kimbercote property where the preschool is located has access to the Bruce Trail and is already equipped with an outdoor Indigenous classroom.
“It’s about letting kids be in a natural environment,” said Edwards. “We want children to grow up in connection with nature.”
Her own son at 3.5 years old can identify different varieties of trees, and will often sing songs about a Robin as he watches it in the yard.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” said Edwards.
The beauty of children discovering the nature around them has inspired more than just forest schools in the area. Sarah Ney is the founder of the Wildlings Camp, which is a wilderness camp for kids.
The environmental engineer spent most of her career in government employment, but would inevitably find herself working with kids.
Inspired by her nieces - whom she refers to as wildlings - she put her career and passion together in the hopes of inspiring a new generation of nature lovers.
Her wilderness camps take kids through local conservation land where they can map out a one-square-metre plot to measure the diversity and health of a forest, they can conduct stream studies, they’ll learn about animal and plant life and also get in some bushcraft skills like fire building, using knives and axes, and building shelters.
“When I was younger, science and nature was my safe place, and I wanted to give more kids that opportunity,” she said.
Ney uses a 1978 Chevy RV parked at the trailhead for a base where students can access science books, ID books and microscopes for their day’s education.
She teaches her students about the impacts and relationships in nature. They’ll do things like make food maps or put on plays to demonstrate what they learned about predators.
“I show them how everything is connected, every action has a reaction,” she said. “They can have a positive or a negative impact.”
She prepares lessons, but like the Simpsons, she lets the kids guide their own learning through their questions and curiosity.
“When it comes to science and nature, the imagination is super key to understanding it,” she said.
“You have to have ridiculous ideas to make a hypothesis,” she said. “Then we talk, and with their imagination I can explain to them how it works and they get it … I can show them the smallest plant or bug has such a big impact.”
Ney focuses on helping kids understand the interconnectedness of nature in the hopes of fostering a connection between them and their surroundings.
“If they care about something, if they love something, they’re going to do more to protect it,” she said.
Matt and Kim Simpson share that philosophy.
“The ultimate goal is to nurture this nature connection,” said Kim, adding the Free Spirit Forest and Nature School focuses on connection to self, others, and nature.
“We’re trying to nurture care of the environment and land in people,” added Matt. “You’re not going to protect something you don’t care about or something you don’t know about.”
Through early outdoor education and teaching skills, science, and relationships of nature, Kim and Matt Simpson, Kimberley Edwards, and Sarah Ney hope to give kids what they will need to be resilient, independent, and compassionate throughout their life.
“Kids are capable of so much,” said Ney. “Give them the confidence and they can handle the world.”