Open Air Open Minds

Learning comes naturally for students of Belfountain Public School’s eco-focused curriculum.

September 16, 2009 | | Back Issues

“There’s nothing out here!” bellowed an exasperated Jonas Cadham from the middle of the playground at Belfountain Public School. It wasn’t recess or after school. It was the first period of his first day of grade six. “Well, you know,” the meek voice of one of his classmates piped up, “I just saw a butterfly.”

And so, three years ago, began veteran teacher Pamela Gibson’s inaugural lesson for the school’s new ecology program. Inauspicious perhaps, but it marked the first step in a remarkable journey for this tiny rural school toward being the first public primary school in Ontario (and perhaps further afield) with an entirely eco-focused curriculum.

For Gibson, the new eco program would render the biggest “aha” moment of her career.

“I always felt the arts drew on kids’ emotions, and their social and character development in a way that the regular classroom didn’t,” says Gibson, who settled in the area almost four decades ago. Her twenty years of epic-scale original operettas at the school are legendary. “But this new eco program crystallized everything for me. I discovered that being outside was an even bigger drawing card. Our natural world is the vessel that holds art and everything else. Everything comes down to the earth. It’s really that big.”

Such a sense of place and connection to nature surely runs deep among denizens of these hills. Just how deep, however, was revealed in 2006 when a group of Belfountain Public School parents rallied behind this common-sense proposition: Let’s help our students connect with and learn from the bounty of natural and community resources right outside the school doors.

Today, after navigating a labyrinth of obstacles, the school’s get-outside philosophy has impassioned teachers and galvanized the devotion of parents, students and residents to their picturesque hamlet and the landscape that surrounds it.

Appropriately, the seed of this grassroots notion first took root outdoors. In 2005, friends and Belfountain residents Peter Kendall and Jeff Collins were hiking the wetlands on Kendall’s property when the conversation turned to schooling options for their young families.

“We talked about the things we enjoyed and remembered most about school,” says Collins. “For both of us, it was always the outdoors. Those were the lessons that stuck.”

Taking stock of the wetlands, rivers, forests and kettle lakes around them, the two started cooking up ideas for how the curriculum at the local public school could be taught in the natural world, instead of the classroom.

“We also have so many great resources in the community – artists, musicians, biologists – and we started thinking about how we could draw on those too,” says Kendall.

Collins and Kendall were the ideal duo to turn that talk into action. As executive director of the Bolton-based Schad Foundation, which supports environmental projects, Kendall spearheaded Earth Rangers, a program that promotes environmental education for youth across Ontario, including shows in the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity at the Royal Ontario Museum. Collins, an avid naturalist and inveterate entrepreneur, has made a career of connecting great ideas to the people and resources needed to make them happen.

The two started at the top, pitching the concept to Tony Pontes, then Peel board’s superintendent of education. Pontes immediately offered his full support.

“There’s a good deal of research out there that ties strongly hands-on study through the environment to improved student engagement, focus, attention and overall achievement,” says Pontes. “With its natural environment, and parent and community resources, Belfountain’s concept had all the earmarks for success.”

Of the vast pedagogical research on the subject, the concept that stood out was something called “place-based education,” first coined in the late nineties by the Orion Society in Massachusetts. The idea is to take kids out of the classroom and use the local natural environment and community as primary resources for learning across all disciplines.

“The goal was never to make tree-hugging, whale-saving, Birkenstock-wearing kids,” quipped Collins. “It’s about our children being aware, and being good citizens and stewards of their environment.” With that, Collins, Kendall and the initial core group settled on this one guiding motto: “If they love it, they’ll take care of it.”

Fast-forward to the pilot year – September, 2006. The Belfountain community has raised over $15,000. The Town of Caledon, Caledon Rotary and several other private donors have given generously to finance a year-long pilot, even with the concept not yet fully formed.

With the pilot set to run in grades two and six, parameters for the teachers are intentionally amorphous. “I remember that first introductory meeting with Jeff, Peter and the group,” says Gibson. “They basically said we don’t want to influence how you do this. We just want the kids to get outside more and have this feeling of connection and meaningful experiences outdoors.”

Rob Ridley, the Peel board’s co-ordinator of outdoor field centres, and Gary Campbell, the program’s outdoor education instructor, stepped in to help design the curriculum. Although they had designed award-winning add-on environmental curricula at Herb Campbell and other Peel schools, Belfountain would be their first effort at a wholly embedded ecological curriculum.

“We weren’t writing curriculum,” says Ridley. “We helped the teachers recognize and use the curriculum in the natural environment.” They also joined the school’s eco advisory group to keep the concept on track through that first year.

“Just because these are rural children doesn’t mean they don’t play too much Xbox. They had the ‘icky-gooey’ fear of nature too,” says Campbell. “At first, many didn’t dress appropriately and you could even say they rebelled, but they also worked past it.”

By the next year, the program had proved its merit and was running across all grades. Now in its third post-pilot year, parents and teachers still collaborate with the field centres on many seasonal activities, including a Halloween bat night, a winter owl prowl, a spring peepers celebration, and a mosses and lichens exploration.

Campbell, who is also an artist, will team up this fall with students and parents on a Credit River habitat mural destined to engulf every inch of the walls and ceiling throughout the school halls.

Have the kids changed much since those early days? Last year, Campbell hosted a grade three class for tree planting at Finlayson Field Centre. “I was able do things with that class that I wasn’t normally able to do with this age group,” he says. “They were saying things like, ‘Hey Gary, check out the subsoil here.’ And when it came to the actual planting, they knew exactly what to do.”

For the students, these great outdoor explorations seem to be translating into memorable academic and life lessons.

Ellie Eberlee spots a red trillium. Ryan Thompson makes open-air notes. Olivia Smith and Shawna Somers take refuge in their lean-to. David Madersbacher plants trees. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

Ellie Eberlee spots a red trillium. Ryan Thompson makes open-air notes. Olivia Smith and Shawna Somers take refuge in their lean-to. David Madersbacher plants trees. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

“Last year, Adam Bartley, Jake Mihkelson and I helped save a young grebe that had lost its way,” says Belfountain grade six student Colin Villmann. “By researching, we learned that the bird was a red-necked grebe. It’s a water bird with feet that have individual paddle-like toes. They’re so cool.

“To take off, our grebe needed a lake or a pond. Because the school isn’t close to water, we made it a habitat and calmed the bird down. We showed and talked about the grebe to each class in the school. A teacher called the local conservation area and arranged for our grebe to be released. Hopefully, it’s now with its flock.”

“I just like to be outside,” says Colin’s classmate, Ellie Eberlee. “Going to the vernal ponds was so interesting. We measured the water levels falling as spring progressed. I loved finding snakes and frogs and salamander eggs. I loved looking for snow patterns from the way that the wind blew in our snowshoes. I can’t imagine having to go to a school where I had to read about this stuff instead of having a chance to experience it with my friends and teachers.”

Involvement by community members and parents has been another rich source of hands-on experiences for the students. One of those parents is Mark Heaton. A fish and wildlife biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Heaton hosts many student activities and field trips. His annual grade six electrofishing outing, complete with hip waders for all, has the kids taking stock of fish populations in the Credit. It’s now a much-anticipated right of passage for senior students.

Joe Burchell, a retired mining engineer, is another of the many locals who have stepped up to share their unique talents. Burchell’s neolithic stoneworks on Winston Churchill Boulevard have long been a neighbourhood conversation piece. As he stands amid the stone circle he helped create at the school, he says the energy of the stones makes it difficult for him to stay too long in the centre. He then uses my metal pendant to demonstrate the opposing energy of adjacent stones.

“The kids were mesmerized by my geologist friend John Slack. He talked about a mile-high glacier right above where they sat in this circle,” says Burchell. “Within those different stones, John told them how they’d find the history of the world. What drama.”

Madeline Hickey and Mackenzie Denreyer show off their new friend. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

Madeline Hickey and Mackenzie Denreyer show off their new friend. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

Parents and residents have contributed a good deal to the new eco lab as well. Built with funds provided by the school board in 2007, the eco lab is now equipped with five navigational compasses, thirty pairs of binoculars and thirty youth snowshoes – among the many other items donated by community members.

“The lab is like Miss Frizzle’s magic school bus,” says Heather Kendall, who co-chairs the school council with Kara McIntosh. Both women have been tireless champions of the program since its earliest days. “It’s where the kids prepare for the place the real adventure begins – outside.”

“And that’s why our learning grounds are at the heart and soul of our eco focus,” adds McIntosh. “The outdoor portion of the school property should be a place where kids can blow off steam at recess, and also find exciting, interesting places to learn.”

With that in mind, local landscape designer and architect Juergen Partridge donated the design for the learning grounds back in the fall of 2007. As it turned out, finding great ideas and the people who would build them for free was the easy part. Working through the myriad liability issues with the Peel school board proved more challenging. Perhaps understandably so.

No specific safety standards existed for neolithic stone circles or reforestation areas in school playgrounds. Far from the standard open field or pavement with jungle gym, Belfountain’s learning grounds are more a creative miniature of the kinds of natural resources and experiences kids might find in their own neighbourhood. Working with the school board through all these outside-the-box elements took time – two years, in fact.

In the end, things like a climbing wall didn’t make the final safety cut. And many other elements required compromise, such as Burchell’s stone circle. All the stones had to lie flat so kids wouldn’t be injured climbing on them. And several thousand dollars were spent to hire a board-approved contractor to do the installation under Burchell’s direction.

Development of the learning grounds will continue this fall with the addition of trails, an amphitheatre, stepping-stone boulders, a rain garden, wacky posts, a gazebo and a new play centre, along with the planting of native trees in a new wildlife corridor and a vegetable garden.

Willow sticks will also be planted, to grow tall enough to eventually weave into a tunnel and fort. The soccer field will be moved and, by the time the snow flies, there will be giant musical instruments, such as bongo drums and an enormous xylophone.

“We’ve been breaking entirely new ground in this public/private collaboration and, understandably, it was a daunting process at times for all parties involved,” says Kate Subak, former chair of the school council and a driving force behind the learning grounds project. “In the end, it was the passion that the teachers brought to the program that kept us all focused on how important it is.”

While the entire staff quickly united behind the eco focus, teachers Janice Haines, Jivva Somerville and Pamela Jane Gibson grew particularly close. Calling themselves “The J Sisters,” today they seem more than ever like a sisterhood of eco education evangelists. After just a few minutes of hearing their testimony, it’s hard not to be equally converted.

Haines says improved motivation and a sense of stewardship are the biggest changes she’s seen among the students. “The kids find things motivating because it’s hands-on and real life. It makes sense. Instead of contriving something for them to write about, they’re mind mapping about salmon, including math and graphic organizing. Some kids did art pieces or a newspaper article.

“It’s the same curriculum, but the end product is amazing. I see kids out on field trips actually picking up garbage without being asked. And more than once I’ve heard comments like, ‘That was the best day of my life.’”

Spotted salamander, another new friend. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

Spotted salamander, another new friend. Photos Courtesy Belfountain Public School.

A seasoned outdoor educator, Jivva Somerville is described fondly by a former student as knowing “way too much about nature.” Somerville beams about the school’s collaborative culture and the strong sense of belonging it builds among the students.

“We do a lot of things with other classes. It’s a conscious decision to do things as a community,” she says. “There is power and joy in intentional sharing. It may be the grade fours mentoring another class through their flying squirrels study or my grade fives hosting a kindergarten bug party. Students get to say, ‘Hey, I can show you what I’ve learned and we can discover together.’”

Now entering her first year of retirement, Pamela Gibson continues to consult on eco-curriculum integration at the school. Her greatest hope for all this: that the Belfountain program will be thriving twenty years from now, as well as versions of it in many other schools.

And her greatest epiphany since the program started: “It’s all about connections, integration, putting the subjects back together as they are in the real world. I think kids often feel duped by education, like it’s practice for what’s going to happen later on. Our students understand that what we’re doing is real. They trust that we’re not just trying to fudge something so they can write a test and get a mark. It does feel like we’re part of a quiet, noble, happy revolution.”

Rewind to June of 2008. The school year draws to a close, as does Gibson’s 38-year teaching career. Once again, she’s brought her charges outside to learn. As often happens, lines between subjects begin to blur. That’s the way it works in Gibson’s class and in real life.

Amid the hum of activity, one student’s tentative voice pipes up: “Miss, is this math?”


Useful Links:

Children and Nature Network

Earth Rangers

The Orion Society

Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, Royal Ontario Museum

Ontario Eco Schools From the web site: “…an environmental education program for grades 1-12 that helps students develop ecological literacy while engaged in practices to become environmentally responsible citizens. Developed and run by school boards, Ontario EcoSchools also helps improve school building operations to reduce environmental impacts.”

Wikipedia: Outdoor Education

Article: “A Life-Shaping Week: The Outdoor Education Experience” (

Earthwalk Eco-Education Centre (

About the Author More by Liz Beatty

Writer and broadcaster Liz Beatty hosts and produces the award-winning North Americana Podcast (, which unearths surprising stories that connect Americans and Canadians. She lives in Brimstone.

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