A group of Qualicum Beach schoolchildren was recently found playing with matches in their schoolyard. Rather than reprimand them, their teacher encouraged and directed the activity.
Instructor Jamie Black just wrapped up a six-week outdoor survival class for elementary students at Arrowsmith Independent School in Hilliers. The course was so successful that the school is offering to host an after-school survival club led by Black and open to all area children, whether or not they are enrolled in the school.
"The passion she has for teaching kids outdoor skills is a buzz in the community here," said Colleen Murray, director of the new school, which opened this year in the former Morning Glory School facility. "And outdoor survival is just a big carrot for the kids. If we can get them thinking about community problems and issues, or what are your basic needs as a person, it becomes a vehicle in which we teach bigger concepts."
Black, who directed the environmental awareness and survival program Wildcraft Play, approached Arrowsmith Independent School last summer when she learned about the school's planned student-directed learning approach.
"I said, 'I hear what you guys are up to, and I want to come play,'" Black said. "I'm trying to do this anyway."
One segment of the six-week course was the Firekeepers session, in which Black taught the students how to start and handle fire in a safe manner.
"The part that surprised me most is that they didn't know how to strike the match," said Black. "I learned how to do that when I was five years old, but a lot of children are almost scared to do that, through what society teaches them."
Black designed the lesson around First Nations origin stories, and co-ordinated with the school's classroom instructor to make it part of the Ministry of Education-approved curriculum.
"She had the students creating a field journal and writing down what they did as they went about their day," said Murray. "They would write down edible plants, non-edible plants, learned about invasive species. What plant can you use if you're stung by a bee? The first aid properties of local plants. There is plenty of curriculum stuff covered in those components of the lesson, and they're soaking it up."
To engage the students, Black allowed them to select character roles and act out the aboriginal stories as a fox, or bear, or "evil spirit" and more. Each time the class gathered at the fire pit to light a fire, a team of four Firekeepers was selected to fill the jobs of lighter, fire feeder, water bucket keeper and blanket keeper.
The students rotated turns on the Firekeeper team as classmates looked on an offered encouragement or cheered when the first smoke emerged from the tinder.
“There’s so much they’re getting out of this, but having that heightened excitement is what makes them totally participate and be completely present and in the flow of learning,” said Black. “It’s a guided discovery approach; they need to discover, but you need to be there to guide them through it.”
Black has served as an outdoor guide, and has taught fire building and survival skills to children for seven years, she said. Murray found her teaching style a perfect fit for the Grade 2-5 youngsters.
“For me, what stood out was the way she interacts with the children and has them create the solution and direction of the lesson,” Murray said. “It’s experiential, but from their own initiative.
“And if it goes a little sideways because they’re interested in something else, she’ll adjust her lesson plan accordingly.”
With the six-week outdoor survival session wrapped up, the independent school students have moved on to food preservation and home canning instruction. But Black welcomes the opportunity to share her expertise with any students interested in an after-hours survival club.
For more information or to sign up, contact Arrowsmith Independent School at 250-752-2722.