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Forest and nature school is an exercise in exploration

Posted on September 8, 2022 by Sunny South News

By Cal Braid
Sunny South News

Kids learn through play. They discover the world through activity, exploration, and the stimulus of their senses. Academy in the Wild is a southern Alberta nature school that creates outdoor learning experiences for kids. Angelina Robillard is the founder of the program, and she believes in allowing children’s interests and curiosities to dictate where each day in class takes them.

From September to November, Robillard is running 10-week programs in Magrath and Lethbridge. The sessions go once a week for three hours on the scheduled day. The Academy programs are named after local animals; the Coyotes are kids aged three to eight, the Rattlers are the six to 11 age group, and the Falcons are the 11 to 15 group. She said a day in the program could include making cattail flour bannock, experimenting with small mudslides, making nature crowns, fixing an old dock, going on a critter hunt, sailing nature boats, and learning to whittle.

Robillard is passionate about nature and outdoor adventure, and she wrote the content for her website, which is inviting and full of detail. She has been in southern Alberta for 18 years after growing up on Vancouver Island, and has come to love the landscapes, forests, and coulees in the area. She especially enjoys studying and teaching natural navigation. Natural navigation is about reading nature — understanding how the sun and wind affect the natural earth and being able to tell which direction is north, south, east, or west based on your observations. Examples of this are evident in the tree’s bark, which is darker on the north side of a tree. Another is if there is lichen all around a rock, the brightest lichen will be facing south.

She said, “I was not planning on going back to work at this time, however, I couldn’t resist the pull this field of work had on me, so I went back to school, started up, and founded Academy in the Wild.”

“Academy in the Wild immerses children in supported, yet unstructured, play-based learning experiences in our 10-week programs,” she said. “We aim to foster and build children’s resilience, connection, and environmental stewardship through adventure and discovering the wild. We fan the flames of children’s natural interests, igniting curiosities, amazement, and wonder—in and for our wild world.”

She said that the program days are “always unique and catered on the whims and interests of the children.” One of the features that sets the program apart is the ‘risky play’ aspect it integrates. The Academy’s web page says, “We are such a risk-averse to society, that often children are wrapped in cotton wool to ensure they come to no harm, but this also denies them the opportunities for so much growth.”

“Children need to take some risks. As parents, this makes us anxious; we want our children to be safe. But if we keep them in bubbles and never let them take any risks, they won’t know what they can do, and they may not have the confidence and bravery to face life’s inevitable risks. Yes, you can get hurt from climbing a tree or hammering nails and running at high speeds through the woods. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it; the lessons we learn from failure are just as important, if not more, than what we can learn from success.”

That aspect might be frightening some parents, but it makes sense, and it’s not as if she’s encouraging kids to swim alone across the Oldman River.

She described a class by saying, “They may be playing in the ‘mud kitchen’, then get distracted by a shiny green beetle, which we of course will follow, speculating the who, what, where, and how of it! Then we may come across some goldenrod gulls that have naturally dried from the changing seasons. Inspired, we cut them off, drill holes, and string necklaces, talking about how this practice is ancient and indigenous.”

The program has core routines that the group follows each day. Conversations, group storytelling, books, and sit spots all aim to expand on the day’s learnings and “deepen their connection to the wild earth.”

“These core routines help create a feeling of community within our program, creating a space that feels both comfortable and safe for the children. For our older children, we incorporate bushcraft, survival, and remote first aid skills to help build on their self-confidence, independence, and add hands-on practical skills to their ‘toolbox’.”

Robillard’s feelings about nature paint a vivid picture. “The forest has always been like a warm hug to me. I always think back to picking buckets of huckleberries and smashing them up with sugar just to eat spoonfuls. (I also remember) building countless hidden forts around the property, fishing in one of our property’s creeks and never catching anything, which I’m grateful for, and falling asleep cuddled up to my friend Cosmo, who was a pig.”

“Going into the shop with my dad to work on a new project and gardening with my mom. All of these moments and people have had the largest impact on the reverence and respect I give both the earth and its animals. We are supposed to be good stewards to the earth. I feel we are failing. We have to raise the next generations to think better, to do better for our earth. It starts with allowing children the time to truly connect with it, build up a personal relationship, and witness its marvels up close. If we just talk to children they will never learn, we must show them.”

For more information, visit academyinthewild.com. The program costs $275-$325 for ten weeks and will be held on different days in Magrath and Lethbridge.

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