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Amanda Bostlund believes in the power of nature and free play, and is the proud owner of Open Air Learning in South Shore, Nova Scotia. Open Air Learning offers experiential, nature-based programming including forest kindergarten, overnight camps for kids, and playful nature retreats for adults.
As a child Bostlund spent her summers in the wilderness of Nova Scotia, roaming through the woods and clambering around the rocks of Vogler’s Cove with her family. She has always been drawn to the outdoors, and loved learning about plants and animals. While working as a Venue Manager at Windhorse Farm, an evolving eco-village in New Germany, Nova Scotia, Bostlund was inspired to turn her love of learning and nature into something she could share with others.
“I’ve understood for a long time that learning happens everywhere, so when my mom passed along a magazine article about the forest kindergartens of Denmark, I started spending all of my spare time researching the idea,” says Bostlund. “It just struck me as so useful and simple – something that could have powerful benefits for both children and the environment.”
North America an underserved market for forest schools
She quickly learned that although European countries were excelling in the programming, there weren’t many forest kindergartens in North America. Bostlund discovered there was no standardized path to opening her own, but she knew she wanted to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to see success in the program before diving in.
Bostlund embarked on a learning journey in earth-based education which included visiting Tír na nÓg, the first forest school in the Maritimes. She also spent time volunteering at Knowlesville Art and Nature School in New Brunswick, and Wilderness Awareness School camps in Washington. Along her journey, Bostlund researched various educational theories and took inspiration from successful program coordinators in the field. She topped off her experience with a winter trip to Denmark, learning from the experts and picking up on their tactics and beliefs.
“I was particularly taken with the Danes’ sense of trust in one another, including small children,” says Bostlund. “I think this is one of the main things that has allowed for main-stream acceptance of forest kindergartens in that part of the world. Being trusted by adults helps children grow and trust themselves.”
In 2014, Bostlund was ready to make her dream a reality, and officially opened Open Air Learning with support from her friends at Windhorse Farm. The first forest kindergarten began with only three children, and has since blossomed into a popular three-season-program that Bostlund hopes will continue to spread across the province.
Open Air Learning offers recreation programs, and is not considered a day care or school, but participants are exposed to new and exciting forms of learning that add to their educational experience as a whole. Bostlund says this unique concept of learning is far from new, explaining that Indigenous cultures have been providing nature-based lessons to their children for centuries.
“There are so many benefits that come from people spending time in nature,” says Bostlund. “It’s grounding and important to understand that you are interconnected with everything else on our planet.”
Helping children build resilience and confidence
A typical day at the Open Air Learning forest kindergarten begins with a good morning song, where campers aged 3-5 greet each other and the forest, pretending to grow from seeds into trees. Next, Botslund takes the kids on a walk into the main base camp, where they sit together around a fire exchanging stories and participating in group activities. Free play takes up a large portion of the day, during which time the children make up games together, build things, look for insects, climb trees, or engage in any type of activity they deem interesting. After the kids wash up, they enjoy a healthy snack before going on another adventure before lunch. Botslund wraps up the day by giving each child the chance to share a memory of their day, building skills of reflection and appreciation. Botslund says much of the program is developed around the children in each particular group, and as facilitator, she is there to foster a sense of curiosity, wonder, and empathy.
One of the primary goals of Open Air Learning is to encourage children to develop resilience and confidence. “When we as adults repeatedly tell children to be careful, we are taking away their ability to make decisions and learn their own limits,” Bostlund explains. “At forest school, we discuss risks, help kids understand reasoning, and give them the opportunity to learn for themselves.”
This fall brings the five year anniversary of Open Air Learning and Bostlund says the public understanding of the importance of free-play and nature-based learning continues to grow.
To learn more about Open Air Learning, visit: openairlearning.ca.
Jill Ellsworth is a lover of handwritten letters, bottomless tea, and contributing to the chaos.
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