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Montroyal Elementary brings the classroom to the forest with new outdoor learning space

The space was created in honour of former Montroyal Parent Advisory Council chair David Smail

Doused in natural sunlight, crisp with clean air and alive with the sounds of chirping birds and creaking branches, the new learning space to be installed at North Vancouver's Montroyal Elementary isn’t your average classroom.

Instead it is a haven, one that inspires creativity, productivity and a better connection with the outdoors, said the project’s instigator and student parent, Christine Campbell.

The outdoor classroom had been the vision of Campbell's late husband David Smail, a former Montroyal Parent Advisory Council chair, outdoor enthusiast and avid hiker of the North Shore mountains.

Smail envisioned creating a place where students can learn in a natural environment, but he died of terminal and inoperable Glioblastoma in 2021 before his dreams could become reality.

Since then, Campbell has made it her mission to have his vision realized, working with principal Doug Beveridge and fundraising with parents to ensure the ‘classroom’ was in place before their daughter, Mackenzie, graduated Grade 7 in July.

“David’s idea was that kids need outdoor time, they need a change of scenery, and sometimes that change of scenery can spark imagination and a new way of learning,” she said. “He really wanted that option for children and teachers to have another place to come together and learn from one another and learn from nature.”

The six white cedar wood benches nestled within the forest behind the school were unveiled in a ceremony on Wednesday morning, alongside a memorial plaque in Smail’s honour.

Of the firm belief that we would all do well to look to Indigenous communities for guidance on how to better educate and connect with the land, Campbell ensured the project's launch coincided with National Indigenous Peoples Day and that the unveiling assembly was led by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) members, who carried out a ceremony with traditional dance and storytelling. 

“Nature is our best instructor that we could ever ask for, and the Indigenous people have known that all along” said Campbell. “We really can grow and thrive and flourish in natural conditions and surroundings. Kids need to move and they need to breathe fresh air, and so do the teachers."

Rose Greene, the district principal of Indigenous education and equity for the North Vancouver School District, said being in nature regularly, especially when in a learning environment, is vital to retaining physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health.

“We do not have all of those four realms if we are not close to nature,” she said.

“Children within four walls can only learn so much,” said the school’s principal Doug Beveridge, “but out here the possibilities are endless.”

Beveridge said the space will be used all year round, rain or shine.

“We can bring more than one classroom up here, we can do other types of activities here. Learning could be silent reading, it could be science, it could be nature, it could be a creek study, the creativity here is endless,” he said.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

MKerrLazenby@nsnews.com
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