On a windy autumn morning, children dressed in colorful woolly hats and mittens sing a greeting to the Earth near a towering 150-year-old willow tree.
Children notice how the wind and sun play with the tree. They wonder what is happening inside; they offer sticks for the tree to eat and investigate the inside cracked open after a wind storm.
The tree provides opportunities for climbing and a bird’s eye view of adventures below. Hungry chickadees call out as they swoop from branches, landing on outstretched hands that offer shiny sunflower seeds. The children shout with delight and wonder.
A Wild Year
Forest nature programs like this one, the Willows forest nature program, give children more daily and direct sensory experience of the natural world. This is at a time when more people are living in cities, there are fewer green spaces and families are spending more time indoors and on screens.
Children in forest nature programs experience the tremendous social, emotional, and physical benefits of playing outdoors. Being outside in nature is good for mental health, improves mood, and lessens anxiety. In the Willows forest nature program, children play in the Humber Arboretum two or more days a week. The children also play and learn indoors and on a natural playground.
How Do I Draw the Wind?
Young children run free when given the geography to do so. They explore and investigate their curiosity through questions:
Why is the puddle smaller today?
Why does the river look like squiggly lines?
How does the snail move with the swirly shell on its back?
Seasonal changes mean every day is a different adventure with a different story.
Learning From and With the Land
The children also get to share in local Indigenous knowledge. We have been invited to participate in All Nations socials and Pow Wows. Such events encourage intercultural engagement and increase knowledge of Indigenous culture and worldviews through movement, performance, and intergenerational dialogue.
My research considers how learning from and with the traditional territories of Indigenous community whose traditional lands we are walking on
might contribute to re-imagining nature-based early childhood programs.
In the second year of the Willows, Lynn Short, who works as a horticultural professor and at the Aboriginal Resource Centre, began to walk with us. She had been sharing teachings of Elder James Dumont through storytelling and her scientific knowledge of local ecosystems.
In tasting sumac (makeebug) tea made from an August harvest, we have learned some Grandfather teachings: Inform the plants who you are, what it is you are asking for and how you are going to use the plants. Thank them (Miigwetch) for their help.
Deer, Hawks, Turtles
We meet for the Willows in what we have learned is Adoobiigok—or “Place of the Black Alders” in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language—part of the traditional territory of the Ojibwe Anishnaabe people that includes several First Nations communities.
GabeKanang Ziibi (the Humber River) winds through the 105 hectares (259 acres), a biodiverse region with deer, red-tailed hawks, and painted turtles, where vulnerable, rare and/or threatened species are protected through stewardship.
Through the traditional teachings, children, educators, parents, and students learn about kindness and respect for all of our relations. For example, we learn that dandelions are one of the first foods for wild bees in early spring. We learn not to pick dandelions, so bees can eat and pollinate.
A growing forest and nature movement in Canada and worldwide inspires us. We look to guidance from the Canadian statement on active outdoor play which shares ways to increase outdoor time as families.
In a parent focus group for the Willows program, parents recalled their own childhoods outside. Several parents reflected that busy lives don’t often allow for unstructured play in nature.
Some shared that they see their children taking risks more confidently in the forest than they do on playgrounds. Several parents noticed children sleep better after a day outdoors; one parent shared how children are learning to care about nature and that this is important for the family.
When we collectively walk with the land and listen to stories, we understand how connections to the land are critical for the Earth’s future. By seeking to work in partnership with Indigenous communities in the hope of braiding Indigenous wisdom with scientific knowledge through storytelling, Earth-centered programs such as the Willows can actively participate in the mutual well-being of the land as we face social and ecological challenges.