Charter school aims to get students in touch with nature and learn to live healthy

ByKatherine S

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A prospective charter school in Parkland County wants to teach healthy living skills by exposing students to nature, reducing their reliance on technology and teaching them how to prepare their own meals.

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In partnership with the University of Alberta and YWCA Camp Yowochas, a 60-acre, year-round outdoor education centre 80 km west of Edmonton, Change Health Charter School aims to teach kindergarten through Grade 9 students in accordance with Alberta’s curriculum while using the camp’s facilities, located on Lake Wabamun, as an extension of the classroom.

Camp Yowochas community manager Felicia Ochs, who also sits on the charter board, said the school wants to create “enthusiasm and excitement” for outdoor learning by using nature to enhance student education.

With campgrounds and staff on hand, classes would have access to wetlands, hiking trails, rope courses and watercraft — to name a few facilities — in the afternoon after studying their core subjects in the morning, Ochs said, noting that indoor and outdoor activities can complement one another.

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“These things can be taught in a cross-curricular fashion,” she said, “so everything you’re doing in the morning is building up to what you’re going to go and explore and experience with the community in the afternoon.”

The facilities on site offer the school different “delivery models” for education, Camp Yowochas director Terry Konyi said.

“Rather than talking about it in the classroom, we might be outside on the lake in a canoe learning about moving water, rather than just watching a video about it,” he said.

Camp Yowochas has long believed children need to spend more time outdoors when possible, he added, which made it a natural partner for the project.

“It was an opportunity for us to consistently involve a group of children outside and let them explore, ask questions and fall in love with the world so that they grew up wanting to honour it and protect it.”

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The school also plans to reduce reliance on recreational technology, such as access to smartphones at times when students could be socializing, while maintaining its use for educational purposes.

“We want to develop those pro-social behaviours, develop that social-emotional intelligence,” Ochs added. “But if the teachers determine that the technology is going to enhance the delivery of the curriculum, then great.”

Students, however, at this school won’t be the only ones doing the studying.

Dr. Doug Klein, a family physician and professor with the University of Alberta’s department of family medicine, is part of a research team prepared to evaluate the students’ progress including physical literacy, or fluency with bodily movements, and knowledge around nutrition and meal preparation, which students will also learn at school.

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“What we’re trying to do with this school is make sure that adults actually have these skills that will keep them healthy and prevent those chronic diseases that I see in my office,” he added.

Klein, who has studied the role of diet and exercise play in preventing chronic disease, said the programming aims to help students ward off conditions such as diabetes in the long-term, but also give them the tools they need in the short-term to keep them out of the heath-care system — otherwise known as an “upstream” approach to protecting health.

“If you see someone drowning in the river, and you go and you pull them out, that’s what our health-care system is designed to do,” he said. “Rather than just pulling people out of the river, you actually need to go upstream and find out why people are ending up in the river in the first place.”

Planning to open in September 2023, the school is currently seeking an expression of interest from parents as part of its application to the province.

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