by Caroline Schultz

Outdoor education is a particular area of concern to Ontario Nature. Severe cutbacks in the 1990s closed outdoor education centres and reduced outdoor education in Ontario schools to the point where today’s students have minimal hands-on outdoor learning opportunities.

So news that the Ontario Ministry of Education appointed a seven-member Working Group on Environmental Education last March, chaired by well-known scientist and astronaut Roberta Bondar, to analyze needs and approaches to teaching and learning about the environment, was met with cautious optimism. Allan Foster, environmental educator and Ontario Nature member – who often provides the answers on Ontario Nature’s “Ask the Naturalist” website – sat on the committee, along with other experts in the field of environmental education.

Three months after the working group was struck, it produced 32 comprehensive recommendations addressing environmental education policy, leadership and accountability, curriculum, teaching and resources. Ontario Nature is pleased that the provincial government has agreed to implement all of the recommendations.

Importantly, Bondar’s working group emphasized outdoor education as a distinct and vital component of environmental education. Its report highlights the need for hands-on, experiential learning in the environment to foster a connection to local places, develop a greater understanding of ecosystems and provide a unique context for learning. The timely report also highlights the need to ensure adequate funding of outdoor education in Ontario.

Lending considerable support to the working group’s recommendations, the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario recently published Reconnecting Children Through Outdoor Education, which offers concrete evidence of the benefits of outdoor education that goes beyond those mentioned in the Bondar report, demonstrating that outdoor education promotes lifelong physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. (Information on the report is available at www.coeo.org)

Ontario Nature applauds the government’s decision to implement the recommendations put forward by the Working Group on Environmental Education to ensure that environmental education is a core component of our educational system across all grades – and that it is funded adequately. The investment and long-term commitment called for are essential if we are going to reconnect our children to the natural world.