Ryan Andersen is an elementary classroom teacher at Sprucecourt Public School in downtown Toronto, who has been on a journey with his students to connect with the land they live and learn on. Ryan and his students spend time every day building community, making discoveries, and finding joy in both local parks and in the forest of the Don Valley. These green spaces are located near the Wonscotonach trail, documented as the Anishnaabemowin place name for the Lower Don River. The area is covered by Treaty 13, and is the subject of the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas, and Haudenosaunee that bound them to share the territory and protect the land. Ryan uses stories and books by Indigenous authors and illustrators to help students develop an awareness of, and appreciation for, the Seven Grandfather Teachings. He uses an inquiry based approach to nurture students’ understanding of their responsibilities and accountabilities as stewards of the land they live, learn and work on.
Ryan’s pedagogical approach to environmental education is based on the work of Canadian education researcher Jillian Judson, who marries the philosophy of imaginative education with ecologically-based learning practices. Judson’s approach frames student learning through three guiding principles; that of ‘’Sense of Place,’ ‘Activeness, and ‘Feeling.’ These principles are central in the creation of curricular content as well as the methods in which curriculum is delivered. This approach is designed to spark students’ imagination and create opportunities for innovative and critical thinking.
Ryan’s work with his students in both primary and junior grades has embodied these principles when they venture outside to co-create their park or forest classroom each day. Ryan uses “sit spots” extensively in his program to help students develop a sense of place in the natural environment by nurturing a relationship with the ecological community that surrounds them. He uses the work of ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer to teach students about communication, interdependence and reciprocity among the plants and trees and then has them each select a particular tree to visit regularly and develop a relationship with. Students see their tree and its ecological community shift and change through the seasons, which foregrounds the cyclical patterns of forest life. They lie under their tree, examining the patterns of its branches. They explore the various textures of the bark, the leaves, and the roots of their tree. They look for bugs, birds, and animals in and around their tree. They talk to their tree. They develop a friendship with their tree. This emotional relationship serves to bring deeper meaning to the delivery of the Ontario science curriculum by making it personal. It also creates a safe learning space for students to return to regularly when assigned specific tasks.
Ryan also uses a walking curriculum to further nurture his students’ sense of place. A walking curriculum is designed to engage student thinking using various cognitive tools, such as mental imagery, metaphor, binary opposites, and the ‘literate eye.’ It enables students to develop their observational skills, learn about the history and geography of local green spaces, and increase their nature literacy. When Ryan’s class is heading out to the forest or park, he shares with students the intention of the walk and uses guiding questions to engage student thinking. Some examples of specific walks include the growth walk- what’s growing and how do you know? A wet/dry walk- how is the world different after it’s rained? A hiding spot walk what are some good hiding spots for bugs, birds, and animals of different sizes? This approach builds upon students’ natural curiosity and creates myriad opportunities to increase their local nature literacy.
Ryan embraces the principle of activeness as a means of creating a learning space for everyone. The forest classroom allows Ryan’s students to use their whole bodies as tools for imaginative learning and creates a more accessible learning environment. Students who are neurodivergent, or who have learning disabilities, or attention difficulties, or have developmental disabilities thrive in the natural environment because they are not confined by physical space and can choose from multiple entry points for their learning. For example, when teaching primary students about patterns in math, Ryan will ask students to collect nature objects that interest them and then work together to create patterns with different attributes. The act of searching for these objects ignites an excitement for the task and produces a wide variety of patterns that students share with each other as they consolidate their learning. Student aren’t required to sit still, they can make a pattern with whatever sized materials they want, they can be as loud as they want or find a quiet spot, they can choose to work together or independently- they have the freedom to engage with the task in their own way, which facilitates success and confidence in their work.
When teaching junior students about measurement, Ryan collaborates with the trees to provide an active learning experience. The trees share their whole selves, their branches, trunks, leaves, and twigs to provide students an opportunity to estimate, measure, and compare different heights, widths, lengths, and circumferences. Ryan encourages students to search out trees that they’re interested in working with and identify what types of trees they are, using their needles or leaves, as a way to simultaneously promote nature literacy. Each time Ryan takes his students into the natural environment, he is inspired by the questions they ask, the connections they’re able to make, and the growth they demonstrate when they are enabled to actively learn in ways that work for them.
The feelings of wonder, surprise, excitement, connection, tranquility, and confidence that learning in the natural environment evokes in Ryan’s students, fuel their ability to tackle activities they find challenging and persevere. Students in primary grades are faced with the task of learning to read and write, and the outdoor classroom helps them do so. Ryan encourages students in early primary grades to write in the dirt, sand and snow, using its impermanence as a way to get them to practice, embrace imperfection and take risks. He cultivates phonemic awareness by using found objects and helping students connect them to letter sounds and blends. He uses bird and insect listening exercises to attune students’ ears to sounds as a way to develop listening skills that help further their ability to speak, read and write. For older students, Ryan uses their sit spots to write observations, descriptive paragraphs, poetry, and narrative stories. He encourages students to bring books for silent reading time as well as nature guide books to seek out answers to their wonderings, encounters and observations in the outdoor classroom.
Ryan also nurtures students’ feelings within the natural world using the inspiring work of Governor General award winning artist Bonnie Devine to open up possibilities for artistic expression. Ryan has his students create ephemeral art projects using only seasonally available nature materials that allow them to investigate and experiment with colour, line, shape and texture. These completely biodegradable art projects are created in the outdoor classroom and left there for community members (whether they be human, animal, insect or plant) to encounter, use and enjoy. The inventiveness and impermanence of these creations allows students to really use their imaginations and experiment with thinking, being, and doing. Ryan could not engage in so much environmental education in his day-to-day classroom work without the support of many people, including his principal, his teaching colleagues, his students, his family, and the Sprucecourt PS parent community. He carries much gratitude in his heart every day for all of the generous teachings that have been shared with him by education and ecology researchers, Indigenous artists and storytellers, and the incredible ecological community of the Don Valley.