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Great Teaching

A photo of Petra Eperjesi, Ontario Certified Teacher sitting on a tree stump.

Force of Nature

Petra Eperjesi, OCT, has designed a kindergarten program that gets students outside and plants a self-directed learning seed that firmly takes root.

By Trish Snyder
Photos: Matthew Liteplo

Online: To view our Great Teaching video archive, visit Professionally Speaking

“How can we build a shelter that we can all fit under?” It was a fall morning in 2013 when Petra Eperjesi, OCT, first floated the idea past her three-, four-, and five-year-old students at Tawingo College in Huntsville, Ont. While their peers were adjusting to life in a kindergarten classroom, these youngsters were acclimatizing to life outside four walls. They were enrolled in Outdoor Kindergarten — an innovative program Eperjesi introduced at the independent school just a year earlier. Her unique approach was based on finding ways to teach the ABCs, 1,2,3s and life skills while the class explored 109 hectares of woodland. Make a shelter? The children understood “shelter” was a fancy word for fort, which Eperjesi knew they loved building. Every child was bursting with ideas.

Eperjesi channelled their enthusiasm through an ambitious series of construction experiments. “Ex-per-i-ment,” the teacher repeated in child-size syllables, inviting them to clap along. “That’s a way to test an idea.” (Soon, they were dropping “experiment” and “hypothesis” into everyday conversation.) “What materials can we use to test our fort?” Rain seeped through a version they made using sticks and earth, though it didn’t stop the children from attempting different mud-application techniques, from random dumping to careful patting. One child suggested animal hides, except they didn’t have any. Finally, they tried sticks and tarps, which didn’t dissolve or collapse. Bingo!

The class worked diligently to construct what now became the ultimate teepee. It took six students to lift each pole and 30 minutes to walk to the forested site they chose to build on. Three days later, they’d completed a shelter that was roomy enough to house 18 children and teachers for story time and tea parties. “Petra is brilliant — she never underestimates children,” says Tawingo principal Tia Pearse, OCT. “She knows kids are happiest when they’re outside, so why not teach them when they’re happy?”

Eperjesi fills every school day with fun, real-world lessons by turning the forest into a living, breathing classroom. Her students practise math while collecting pine cones and carrying firewood. They create signs to mark trails through the forest — taking away lessons in geography, literacy and art. They develop sophisticated social skills from navigating a game of let’s-pretend-this-log-is-a-pirate-ship, which doesn’t come with rules on how to compromise when everyone wants to play captain. Tawingo outdoor education teacher MoNa McBrien was blown away by the difference between Eperjesi’s forest and indoor students from previous years. “When they fall, they pick themselves up,” says McBrien. “If it’s cold, they don’t complain. They are some of the toughest, strongest, most confident kindergarteners I’ve ever taught.” Eperjesi’s unconventional program, which is now Tawingo’s trademark, earned her the 2013 Amethyst Award from the Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario and the 2014 Edward Burtynsky Award for Teaching Excellence in Environmental Education.

Petra Eperjesi, crouching next to three young students in the forest. One of the students is pointing at the ground. Petra is smiling at the student.
Play-based educator Petra Eperjesi, OCT, teaches real-world lessons to students at the Ottawa Forest and Nature School.

Playing in Nature

Nature-based learning is having a moment. Unlike outdoor education, which is learning about nature, Forest School (also known as Nature School or Outdoor Kindergarten) is about children directing their learning by playing in nature. The method sprouted in Scandinavia in the 1950s and spread through Europe (the U.K. has an estimated 10,000 outdoor schools) before taking root more recently in North America. At the Ottawa Forest and Nature School, where Eperjesi now teaches, parents have the option of sending their two- to 10-year-olds for part-time, half- or full-day programs. Forest learning became more accessible this fall when the school partnered with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to provide six-week forest programs to visiting public school students. And they’ll be under a microscope: a researcher from the University of Ottawa will be studying the impact on children’s achievement and well-being outcomes.

It’s tougher than ever to argue with the benefits of outdoor play-based learning. After reviewing the literature, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute and ParticipACTION (backed by 12 other organizations and 1,600 stakeholders worldwide) released an evidence-based position statement this year in ParticipACTION’s The Biggest Risk is Keeping Kids Indoors report card that states, “access to active play in nature and outdoors — with its risks — is essential for healthy child development.” It urges schools, daycares and parents to take children outside to explore and, yes, even climb trees. Besides being fun, these activities help children learn their own limits while building confidence, autonomy and resilience.

With garter snakes slithering around one day and a deer appearing the next, there’s no typical day at the school. Instead of ringing a bell, Eperjesi calls students to the cabin, and to her, by howling like a wolf — their cue to howl back and come running. Heated by a wood stove, the cabin is their indoor home base: where they take bathroom breaks, do literacy activities and start their day with a meeting about safety considerations, such as how to identify poison ivy in the spring and stay hydrated in the summer. What happens next is a shock to visiting teachers — instead of whipping out lesson plans, Eperjesi listens as each child turns to the next and asks, “What would you like to do today?” From looking for bugs to turning over rocks, they narrow down the choices and vote. “It’s much easier to start from play than learning goals,” she explains. “This way I’m working with the current of their interest instead of fighting battles to get them interested in my agenda.”

What if they disagree? Eperjesi will then say, “If we don’t get our choice, are we going to say, ‘Awwww’ and let our shoulders slump?” “Nooooo,” they answer. “They go along because they all have a say — she doesn’t decide on their behalf,” says Pearse. Eperjesi also uses this trick to ease transitions. When they’re wrapping up an indoor activity and preparing to go on a hike, she’ll ask, “Now, are we going to race to the door and push people out of the way?” “Nooooo.” “Are we going to run ahead of the teacher who’s leading?” “Nooooo.” Instead of issuing orders, she influences their behaviour by getting their buy-in on better choices. “She does this with everything until their choices are automatically positive,” said Pearse.

Curriculum Connections

Once outdoors, Eperjesi knows play is serious business. The Waldorf approach to early childhood education, which nurtures imagination, inspired her to infuse the program with a sense of wonder. “I once created a treasure hunt with little fairy notes along the path to our tree house so the children would feel the forest was safe and welcoming,” she says. “They were totally swept up and excited. And I was excited because they were keen to read.” On occasion, she’ll guide the children’s free time using the seven play motifs — including adventure, fantasy, animal allies, maps and paths — identified by educator David Sobel in his book Childhood and Nature. As they roam for pirate ships (fallen trees) or treasure (sticks criss-crossing into an X) Eperjesi observes what they uncover and question, all the while figuring out how to enhance those experiences by linking them back to the Ontario curriculum.

Flipping the starting point of a lesson is called “backward planning” or an “emergent curriculum.” When children were fascinated by winter’s first snowfall, Eperjesi led an inquiry into snow. She used the KWL (Know-Want-Learn) technique to ask what they already knew, would now want to know and what they learned. They wondered where snow comes from and what it was made of. To help them, the kindergarten teacher hit the library and read non-fiction books aloud to explain how it forms into crystal structures. Students ran around with magnifying glasses and dark fabric catching the flakes, shouting, “I see a plane crystal or a column crystal!” When they discovered the various classifications and shapes, Eperjesi seized the chance to make a literacy connection: she began introducing different adjectives to describe the snow crystals. “They think they’re just playing,” she says. “I’m always taking notes and mentally making authentic curriculum connections and asking myself, ‘What’s the potential here?’ Sometimes I struggle with being a play-based educator because it can look from the outside like I’m not doing anything. I always have the voice of a critic in my mind. ‘Why does it matter? What are they learning?’”

Managing risks is a huge part of this innovators’ routine. Eperjesi prepares risk-assessment documents (including seasonal and site) with colleagues, to mitigate any potential issues — everything from large animals waking from hibernation to dealing with mosquitos. When temperatures plummet, teachers limit time outdoors and communicate with parents to make sure children arrive properly dressed.

Solving Real Problems

It would be tempting to steer children away from risky situations that arise in a classroom with no walls. Eperjesi looks for ways to say “yes” if they present a chance for students to grow by directing their own learning and solving real problems. “Can anyone tell me why I’m feeling worried about letting you play here?” she once asked, after the children raced toward a tree that had fallen and uprooted another during the night. Students saw a pirate ship: she saw accidents waiting to happen. One by one, the children listed the dangers and figured out solutions. “They meet challenges with resilience and persistence,” says Eperjesi. “They think creatively and try different solutions. It’s a self-esteem thing.”

It’s no wonder children love a school where every day feels like a field trip. One mother registered her child in Eperjesi’s school halfway through junior kindergarten because he was defiant and unhappy at his neighbourhood school. After attending one day a week, for a few months, he was a different student: thinking before acting, with no behaviour issues. His school’s psychologist told the family she’d never seen such progress without medication. Another boy named Jasper was having so much trouble complying with requests at his home school that he begged not to go. His parents enrolled him in Eperjesi’s class one day a week, where he thrived on fresh air and freedom. “Petra has a fantastic positive energy about her,” says Jodi Browne, his mom. “Her ability to read the group and roll with it is amazing. She had so much patience with Jasper and he really responded to that.”

Tawingo principal Tia Pearse wishes her own three sons had had Eperjesi for Outdoor Kindergarten, but they were in older grades by the time she arrived. “Her students become self-aware, proactive learners. They inquire, they probe. If I can turn out a school of critical thinkers like that, I’m happy. Petra is special and our school is better because of her.”

Three ways to branch out

No forest? No problem! Award-winning kindergarten teacher Petra Eperjesi knows she’s lucky to have the woods as her classroom. Here are three ways that you, too, can bring home that forest feeling wherever you’re located.

Create Rhythm

It’s not uncommon for Eperjesi to notice her younger students struggling with rigid, highly structured days that demand conformity. She finds it helpful to balance daily periods of “inhalation,” such as circle time — which require a greater amount of self-control and self-awareness — with plenty of time for the children to “exhale” during self-directed free play, for instance.

Have a “yes” Attitude

Encourage curiosity and creativity in the classroom by looking for ways to say “yes” to as many of your students’ requests as possible. This gives young people the hands-on experiences they need to build their own understanding. Eperjesi believes that these questions are the basis for children steering their own learning — an essential skill for students to acquire at an early age.

Carve Out Time

Find a block of time in your schedule that’s open-ended. Give your students 45 to 60 minutes, ideally outdoors, to pursue their own questions and interests. A warning: for the first 15 minutes it will look like chaos! Just listen and observe without interrupting and without an agenda, then find a way to uncover a strand of the curriculum by focusing on one of their questions.

The OCT featured in this department has been recognized with a provincial teaching award and exemplifies the high standards of practice to which the College holds the teaching profession.