Building on health and wellness and Indigenous mandates, The Willows, a forest nature program at Humber College received the Edward Burtynsky Award for excellence in environmental inquiry.

This is the second year Natural Curiosity at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study has accepted nominations from Early Childhood Educators nationwide. It is also the first time the award was presented to a group of educators, rather than one individual. Louise Zimanyi, professor in Humber’s Early Childhood Education program, received the award with Kaitlin Beard, Avneet Singh, Olga Rossovska, Michael Carlucci, Jennifer Casale, Walter Garcia, Alessandra Silvestro and Lynn Short.

Forest nature program

Piloted by Zimanyi and Beard, who is a registered early childhood educator with Humber’s Childhood Development Centre, the program launched in September 2016. Together with Humber’s Early Childhood Education department, the Faculty of Health Sciences and Wellness, the Humber Arboretum, the Centre for Urban Ecology and the Humber Child Development Centre with support from the Aboriginal Resource Centre, the program helps children explore nature and learn from and with the land.

Zimanyi and Beard started the program after completing a forest nature school practitioner’s course with Forest School Canada. Its mandate is to ensure that all Canadian children play and learn in local nature areas. The Willows provides rich learning experiences, ecological literacy, and healthy living education by connecting children to nature in the early years.

“Forest nature programs are about giving children more daily and direct sensory experiences of the natural world,” says Zimanyi. “At a time when more people are living in cities, there are fewer green spaces and families are spending more time indoors and on screens.”

The program is a unique play and learning experience that offers children under the age of four, the opportunity to succeed and develop confidence through hands-on learning experiences in a natural outdoor setting. Taking place in the heart of Humber’s Arboretum, the program embraces one of Canada’s most biologically diverse ecosystems and its Indigenous roots.

The program received the award for recognizing the importance of Indigenous perspectives and connections with natural surroundings.

Children engage in and with nature throughout the year and fully experience the seasons and the different learning opportunities the Humber Arboretum offers. Children are able to climb trees, bird watch, and learn Indigenous teaching through stories.

Beard says the concept of the program and natural curiosity children are able to form is “incredible.”

“We are all connected. Not just plants, but also birds and animals. Their stories bring a deeper connection and broader perspectives and understanding of the land and the stories that live within it. It also enhances the opportunities for all of us to grow and build relationships with the greater community,” says Beard. 

Lynn Short supports Indigenous education at the Aboriginal Resource Centre and is the Environmental Stewardship Coordinator with the Humber Arboretum and a faculty member in the Faculty of Applied Science and Technology.

Short provides Indigenous education in the forest nature program, which teaches the children, educators, parents and students about kindness and respect for nature and one another. 

“When people learn how to honour the land in a good way and respect the land, it can be healthy and can be treated respectfully. Those teaching and learnings and appreciation of what the land gives us will shape the way people interact with the land,” says Short.

This year’s award to Humber also reflects the teachings of the second edition of Natural Curiosity, which supports Indigenous perspectives and their importance to environmental education.

Zimanyi says Natural Curiosity builds on new and existing resources to help enrich the program and the connections children can make with nature and Indigenous perspectives.

Students studying in the Early Childhood Education program also benefit from learning about the forest nature programs, as it is part of their placement opportunities. They help encourage play and outdoor learning with the children while creating new methods to enhance physical activity and wellness.

The forest nature program received $500 towards environmental education related to professional development, a signed Edward Burtynsky print and $1,000 towards funding Environmental Education learning experiences for students.

Forest nature program

Sharing the program and taking their connections with nature further, Beard, Short and Zimanyi will be co-presenting the forest nature program at the Breath of Fresh Air Outdoor Play Summit at the end of September.

To learn more about the Forest Nature Program, visit Humber’s Early Childhood Education webpage.