The brainchild of two early childhood educators, Terra Nova Nature School was literally a dream come true.
Kate Dawson had a dream about the concept, and Emily Vera had a daytime vision of the same thing. The two women had only met a few times at that point, but when they sat next to each other at a gardening workshop and shared their idea, it was kismet.
“At the end (of the workshop) I said I want(ed) to open a school in that little building at Terra Nova, and Emily jumped up and said ‘me too, I want to do that too’,” says Dawson.
Vera adds that they were fortunate to have the support, from very early on, of the City of Richmond and the Thompson Community Association. Those two bodies continue to be instrumental to the school’s success today, ten years after the idea was initially pitched.
“We both came from community-based programs,” says Vera. “It was important that it remained committed to developing a strong community of people, (being) affordable for families and inclusive for all children.”
Going into its eighth year of operation, Dawson says Terra Nova Nature School’s model continues to be unique as a licensed preschool with a focus on outdoor education. Initially, people wondered if it would succeed in Richmond. But after being set up quickly, including licensing and construction of the building, it began to grow, and now encompasses programs for kids aged three months to 15 years old.
“The people who started with us haven’t wanted to leave,” says Dawson. “Every year we’ve had to increase (our) programs. Now the initial children are going to be able to volunteer.”
There are 20 preschoolers each in the morning and afternoon sessions, as well as school-aged kids who come in for other programs, including after school. And despite the initial uncertainty, almost every program for this fall is full, totalling over 200 children.
For Vera and Dawson, it’s important to maintain a connection to the land on which they learn. Their staff take Truth and Reconciliation training, and they share with kids and families about Indigenous plants and transportation down the river, as well as the cottage’s history as part of a thriving Japanese fishing community.
A framework has developed, including a morning gathering circle and daily outdoor play. Storytelling, literacy and singing are always areas of focus, as well as responding to the season, weather and surroundings. But despite the framework, there is no “typical day.”
“If you can’t blow in the wind out here, this is not the place for you,” says Dawson.
Vera says the outdoor play includes items brought to spark curiosity, as well as what they call “forest school materials.” And Dawson adds that some regular lessons, like teaching the alphabet or counting, come up naturally by counting crows in trees, or wondering why a puddle has dried up.
Part of outdoor learning is having appropriate clothing, including wool socks and waterproof footwear.
“We always say there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing,” says Vera.
A rented construction pod outside acts as the cubby room, where kids can take off their wet or dirty outdoor gear for families to clean.
“It’s a small space, there’s no running around in there,” says Dawson. “The little three-year-olds learn to help each other get changed in and out of their gear.”
Although kids are well prepared, there are still moments of resistance or frustration. But from those moments they learn resilience and independence.
“We might be at one end of the park land and they’re tired and cold and ready to have nutrition break,” says Vera. “We are showering them all the time with love—we are very loving as a team, and affectionate. We also believe that they are capable of being part of a group and toughing things out sometimes. We snuggle them and we say ‘we’ve got to get back to it’.”
Although some are not yet three years old when they start the school year, kids build listening skills, and always stop at benches, intersections and bridges. As they walk, they also learn about the things around them through activities like journalling and nature awareness games. They like playing with the mud kitchen, mixing things and noticing worms, snails and caterpillars.
“They pretty much all love horsetail,” says Vera. “It’s plentiful and invasive, so we’re not very particular about how much they pick. It’s turned into magic brooms (and) stirring sticks.”
Above all, Dawson and Vera along with their staff know to respond to their surroundings and anticipate changes.
“We generally know when the grass is dying down and when it’s starting to sprout,” says Vera. “As educators, we look for some clues and respond to that. That’s the beauty of this type of work.”
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel