Students at St. Jacobs Public School have found there’s a lot to learn outside of the classroom.

Kindergarten teacher Janet Scheuring, ECE Kiri-Ann Wilson, and Grade 5 teacher Karen Holan have joined forces to connect their students with nature by taking them on a hike on the nearby Mill Race Trail every Friday morning.

Scheuring explains they started by having two hours of outdoor learning every morning, but got to thinking about what else they could do outside.

“We have these great resources in our local community, so we started bringing the kids on hikes, getting them used to looking at nature, developing that connection to nature, and we’ve had lots of different people I’ve made connections with just through walking on the trails,” Scheuring said.

They’ve had various speakers come with them on their trail hikes, including a falconer who brought his birds with him.

She says it was important to get the kids outside because they spend so much of their time at school inside, and they are going to responsible for taking care of the environment as they grow up.

They’ve named the group as trail ambassadors, and the students have taken it to heart.

“They’re developing an ownership for it. They’re starting to realize that this is part of their community. When they see litter they want to pick it up. They want to make signs to say ‘please don’t litter, don’t make our trails dirty.’ When they see broken branches they want to take care of it and that’s what we want because these are going to be our future. And they’re developing that connection and then they’ll want to protect this area when they are older,” Scheuring said.

The students built structures in November and each week they check on them to see which ones have endured the winter. [Whitney Neilson / The Observer]

The teachers note you can feel the difference in the classroom after the students have been outside, compared to when they haven’t.

On the first week of November they built small structures out of twigs, rocks and leaves, at the spot on the trail they usually stop to do a lesson. Since then, they’ve been coming back and checking to see which ones have survived the winter. Their goal was to build a structure that would last the winter, and many have.

“The main purpose is to get them connected to nature. I’m so lucky because the ECE that I work with, Kiri-Ann Wilson, is just as into making the children connected to nature and the outdoor learning. There’s so much research that shows it’s good for brain development, great for that meditative quality. We often have a mindfulness moment on the trail and just listen to nature,” Scheuring said.

Nancy Stayzer, former St. Jacobs PS teacher and member of the Woolwich Trails Group, was the guest of honour on last week’s hike.

She spoke to the students about how Woolwich Township has 100-kilometres of trails – roughly the equivalent of driving to Toronto. She explained that part of her job as a volunteer with the trails group is to keep the trails looking nice and clear of debris.

Nancy Stayzer was last week’s guest speaker. She spoke to the students about the length of trails in the township and how they can do their part to keep them clean.

“One of the other things that we do, now that we have a trail ambassador group like yourselves, if we know that groundhogs or beavers have made dents or holes in the trail and you let us know, we can come and fill them, so that nobody steps in them and hurts themselves. Or on a windy day, if branches come down on the trail and you let us know, we’ll come and haul them off, so that everybody can enjoy the trails like we do,” Stayzer said.

Despite the chilly wind at times, the students didn’t seem to mind one bit trekking the trail for an hour, as they made snow angels, checked on their structures, picked up sticks – which were returned before leaving – and ate a handful or two of snow.

And it seems their weekly hikes are not only a boon for the students.

“They’re encouraging their parents to go on the trail. Last week we were feeding chickadees and some of the kids were saying to their moms and dads, ‘can we please go and feed the chickadees.’ So they’re bringing their parents to the trail too, so it’s really benefiting everyone,” Scheuring said.