Outdoor preschool in Chilliwack is off the beaten path

A new open air preschool is delighting kids and parents who are looking for a more natural learning environment

Nadine Knelson

Nadine Knelson

Four-year-old Nixon stomps down a forested path, blazing a trail for his preschool class. He’s looking up, down, and sideways for anything and everything possible, in the trees and on the forest floor.

“Hey! That tree looks like an X!” he yells to the others. A tree has fallen, probably years ago, and grown horizontally across another tree. And sure enough, at just the right angle, the two trees make that recognizable letter.

“Like X marks the spot,” his teacher, Nadine Knelson, confirms. But Nixon is off in search of the next treasure.

It’s just a few seconds of an afternoon full of adventure at Leap for Joy Open Air Preschool. The forest is the classroom, and the world inside it provides the materials for the curriculum. A grassy spot becomes a quiet place to read. A bench on a trail is great place to rest and have a snack. It may seem like an unconventional background, but every few feet offers an opportunity to talk about the very same things discussed in school. Safety, family bonds, the alphabet, basic math skills, beginner’s science, observing the world, even arts and crafts.

The forest used by Knelson is the Great Blue Heron Reserve. It’s the only open air preschool she knows of in Chilliwack, but she notes it’s become a growing trend in the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. This is a trial year between Knelson and the heron reserve crew, and so far, so good, she says.

Holding classes in such a popular public area has shown some unexpected benefits for the kids, and perhaps the wider community, Knelson notes.

Many regular walkers are taking the time to stop and chat with the little ones, and to see the reserve through young eyes. In turn, the preschoolers are seeing others getting out and active — even in the pouring rain.

About that. No, there are no inside days at an open air preschool. That would defeat a lot of the purpose. Instead, Knelson packs tarps and bungee cords in her backpack. The first few times the kids were asked to help create rain shelters, they were a little hesitant, she says. But now, it’s a fun activity as they learn to create lean-tos. Under the tarps, they carry on with learning. And nobody is worried about getting a little dirty.

“The parents expect that they will be coming home with mud on them,” Knelson says, as two of her youngest students crawl into a puddle on a dirt path. There is no rushing them along, no urgent “no, no, no!” to get them out of the mud.

It’s all a part of the constant discovery, and it’s all used as a learning experience.

Knelson isn’t the only one wearing a backpack at this preschool. All the kids do, too, and attached to those packs are personal handkerchiefs. They wash and dry their hands regularly, as they are constantly hands-on with nature.

If there’s a spider on the bridge, they’ll stop to inspect it and watch it work its web. If there’s a bug on the ground, they may move it off a trail. If there are leaves on the ground, they will pick them up and add them to their collection.

It’s not all free play. Knelson is a longtime early educator, and there are lesson plans, materials, and structure just as there is in a regular pre-school. There are yoga lessons, projects like making syrup, and storytime.

For example, to teach safety in the woods, one of the lessons was based on the old adage of never crying wolf. But they also learned basic survival skills, like staying put and finding a tree to stand under if lost. And each child carries and whistle and knows when to use it, and when to leave it alone.

As a few of the kids run ahead, and few lag behind, the leaders stop and decide to make bird calls.

Off in the distance, the same bird calls repeat back. As the group reconnects, they talk about the birds, and joke about the sounds. And then they keep moving.

There’s more to discover, more to learn, and as Nixon knows, a great place to have lunch is just around the next bend.