Bundled up in a maroon toque and a black winter jacket, Parks New Brunswick nature educator Ian Smith playfully chides a group of Saint John high schoolers. They aren’t so thrilled to be standing in a circle—outside—on this cold February day. “Don’t overthink it. Just watch,” Smith says, smiling at the group.
Smith is trying to warm the students up, get them excited before taking off on a little snowshoe adventure. With their right hands, each student holds the toe end of a single snowshoe, leaving the heel end on the ground while Smith explains, for a third time, the game they’re about to play. “Man, it’s 9:30 in the morning, and are we ever firing on all our cylinders,” he jokes.
When the students indicate, finally, that they understand the game, Smith shouts, “One, two, three, go!” Everyone lets go of their snowshoes and races forward to grab the shoe of the person in front of them in the circle. A few students manage to grab their target snowshoes, but most of them fall flat onto the packed snow. “Not bad, not bad,” says Smith, as the teenagers all around him start laughing. “Let’s do it again.”
Parks New Brunswick nature educator Ian Smith is a revered master of outdoor outreach in New Brunswick’s close-knit community of nature educators, including at DUC’s Wetlands Centres of Excellence in that province. He’s spent his entire career working with students and at-risk-kids, helping them connect with nature. Smith never fails to get even the most reluctant children (and, occasional adult) stepping outside their comfort zone and loving it.
Easy ways to make outdoor time connect with kids
1. Treat outdoor time with the same importance as reading, writing and math. To thrive, kids need to be outdoors, getting wet, mucky, sweating and having fun.
2. Give kids the freedom to experience the outdoors in their own way. If you go to a wetland in spring or summer when it’s alive, Smith says, you won’t even need to tell people why it’s so wonderful.
3. Take advantage of local green spaces including municipal, provincial and national parks. Most parks have programs and staff that will introduce you to the wilderness.
4. Wear the right gear. If it’s cold, bundle up. If you’re heading to a wetland, wear rubber boots. Bring sunscreen and a hat, and long sleeves and pants to deter hungry mosquitoes and flies.
5. Make sure you take time to reflect on your time outside before it’s over. Smith likes to get kids into talking circles at end of programs. Here, they can sit and listen, look at the forest through binoculars, and share what they’ve experienced.
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