Hetal Patel's Story
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
2020 Honourable Mention for Natural Curiosity's National Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education
Early Childhood Educator, Peel District School Board
I am an Early Childhood Educator and a Certified Forest School Practitioner, working in the Peel District School Board in Ontario. As an educator in the early years, I promote learning activities beyond the conventional classroom environment and school building. I often use the adjacent park, neighbourhood trails, and playground to provide opportunities for the students of the Kindergarten program. While working at Grenoble Public School in Brampton, I designed and built an outdoor learning environment with help of a grant received from the PDSB. This helped to sharpen the children’s environmental awareness and provided them with places of wonder and curiosity. In addition, I planted seven native trees at the back of school and created a leadership team of students to take care of these trees.
I encourage environmental inquiry in my students as often as I can. I pay attention to what children are interested in and use those sparks to inspire my teaching. One day I noticed our children looking over the Kindergarten fence to a house that had trees in the backyard. They were discussing the birds in one tree:
“I think it’s going to build a nest.”
“No - it’s not spring yet. It’s looking for food.”
“I can’t see it anymore.”
“Where did it go?”
“I don’t know. If there was a tree in our yard then maybe it would come here and we could see it.”
"Yeah - why don’t we have any trees in our yard?”
After listening to the children’s outdoor discussion, I continued it as a conversation in the classroom. Here were some of the student's comments:
“We should plant some trees.”
“If we had a tree then we could take care of it and birds and animals would live in it.”
“We could make leafman pictures in the fall when the leaves drop off.”
“Maybe we could have flowers too.”
“I like to read and draw, we need a place to do that.”
“It’s too hot and sunny outside, there is no shade.”
“ We still need a place to run and jump. Maybe we could get something to jump on and off.”
“Where would we put a sandbox?”
“In the corner because it gets a little shade. I could draw a picture and show you.” “How will we know what everyone wants?”
“Let’s ask them.”
The children began to plan and draw pictures of the outdoor space they would like.
When we designed and created our outdoor learning space, we had lots to consider. We knew that children thrive when given physical challenges - jumping, swinging on the fence, climbing at the park, and so on - and they will repeat these skills in order to master them. We needed an outdoor space that would encourage risk-taking and challenge the students. We created one using logs, a wooden balance beam and rocks in order to satisfy our children’s sense of adventure. We also encouraged use of natural objects in order to help facilitate storytelling and dramatic play. We considered the need that many children have for quiet spaces, and therefore designed a space that incorporates hiding places. We incorporated loose parts (sticks, brush, rope, logs) to allow children to create their own private places to be mindful and self-regulate, and for quieter activities like reading, drawing, and writing. We created a space that offers a variety of natural materials, surfaces and textures, which allows children to search for patterns in nature and to engage in inquiry-based learning.
I was given the task of certifying our school as EcoSchool. I created a team of teachers, administrators, parents, and students. We created a recycling program in school and participated in various competitions offered by EcoSchools Canada, for example designing a t-shirt with a message and creating a GOOS (good-on-one-side) paper bin. In both competitions, our school was awarded the first prize across Canada. Though schools were then shut down due to the pandemic, I continued our eco-school program through online learning. We participated in the Great Gulp, raising awareness around drinking water and reusable water bottle use.
I believe children are born curious; they want to search and discover everything they can, and if their explorations bring pleasure or success, they are certain to keep learning. World-renowned child development theorist Urie Bronfenbrenner explains how everything in the environment affects a child's growth and development. During the early years, children form attitudes about learning that are believed to last throughout their lives. Children who receive the right sort of support and encouragement during these years have a higher chance of success than those who don’t. Environmental education improves and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision-making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.
Adjustments during COVID-19
Having to adjust my teaching during the pandemic has been quite the learning journey. For the first time, I had to teach and run activities virtually, engaging not only students but their parents as well. When we returned to in-person classes this year, I encouraged myself and others in the school to bring the learning outdoors. I attended workshops with local conservation groups, got supplies to support outdoor learning, and used A Walking Curriculum: Evoking Wonder And Developing Sense of Place by Dr. Gillian Judson as a guide for my teaching.