SPO Highlight: English at First Waterloo
One of the struggles when a family immigrates to Canada is outdoor playtime. There are a number of factors working against them. The climate can be harsh, and they may not have proper clothes for the weather. Most live in apartment buildings when they first arrive and do not have immediate access to playgrounds. Also, when parents must watch younger siblings, there may not be as many outdoor opportunities for the older children. Even in childcare programs, it can be difficult to spend time outdoors, because of space or other limitations. Whatever the reasons, the end result is that many newcomer children just don’t get enough time outside.
For years, English at First in Waterloo, Ontario experienced this reality. Located in a church basement, the CNC program space had 12-foot high ceilings, but no windows–and no safe outdoor area.
“Many of the children in our program live in apartments and have multiple siblings, and they were not getting outside. When I started here in2004, the children were indoors all day long,” recollects Maria Milne, the Child Care Supervisor. “The outdoor environment is so important to their learning, so this situation was not good for their development.”
At first, they tried creating a makeshift outside area using pylons to mark the borders. Teachers monitored as best they could, but it was just not safe. With funding from IRCC, they were able to build a fence. Slowly, over the years, the space began to evolve. In order to add structures, they had to install tiles on the ground. Then, they added some climbers. However, those required routine safety inspections, which involved a fee. The budget did not allow for this expense, so they removed the climbers. Instead, they decided to build a natural play space that they could maintain themselves and does not need to be inspected. They transformed it into a beautiful area. The design incorporates a deck, a bridge, flower boxes, chalk areas, and an outdoor painting station. In essence, they created an outdoor classroom.
In warmer months, toddlers and preschoolers spend 45-minute periods outside. There are bikes and trikes, so children can learn cycling skills that they might otherwise not be able to access. Two maple trees provide a natural sunshade during the summer, as well as supply the leaves the children love to rake in the fall. In winter, they exchange the rakes for snow shovels. There are also winter toys, like sleds, so the children can appreciate the Canadian outdoors all year.
One of the highlights of the space is the seasonal garden. The children help to plant vegetables, fruit, and herbs, which they later harvest. These become healthy ingredients in their snacks. By growing, harvesting, and eating their own food, children get to be part of the process and make real connections with nature.
The children love the outdoor space. “When they first start in our program and their parents leave, there is a lot of crying, as many have never been in childcare.” explains Maria. “But as soon as we get outside, there is so much to do and see, that the crying stops. It’s a relaxing and comfortable area, so as children settle into the program, they are better able to bond with the teacher than in the classroom.”
By learning to enjoy the outdoors through all seasons, the children develop a love for their new environment and country that can follow them throughout their lives.