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Fifty years of taking classrooms outdoors

Several key members of the Waterloo Region District School Board outdoor education program delivered speeches during the event on Oct. 30. [Veronica Reiner / The Observer]

The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) outdoor and environmental education program last week celebrated a significant milestone at Heidelberg venue.

The program provides students in elementary and secondary schools across the region a variety of environmental-related knowledge year-round. Topics include pond studies, bird watching, advanced map skills, honey bee hives, indigenous land studies, and the impact of climate change.

The program offering recently hit the 50-year mark, which was celebrated at a get-together October 3 at the Camp Heidelberg Outdoor Education Centre.

“We have been blessed to have these jobs, particularly to have reached now 50 years when so many school board have cut their programs or farmed them out to other places,” said Peter Rasberry, who retired from the WRDSB in 2016 after 34 years in outdoor education.

“We’ve had that risk in the past as well. We’ve always had administrators and trustees who have kept us going. We couldn’t be more grateful for that, and the students in our board have certainly benefitted.”

The program operates at four centres across the region:  Camp Heidelberg, Blair Outdoor Education Centre in Cambridge located on the Grand River watershed, Laurel Creek Conservation Area in Waterloo, and Wrigley Corners in Ayr.

In addition, a seasonal program is staffed and run at the Huron Natural Area in Kitchener. Two part-time staff members deliver programs to primary grades for four to six weeks during fall and spring. Across the board, the centres host more than 900 classes.

Some 20,000 students each year learn, explore, and experience the outdoor environment through these programs.

“If you do that math, it works out that probably close to 1,000,000 students have participated in board-run outdoor education systems,” said Sean McCammon, an outdoor education specialist at the Laurel Creek centre.

“I’ve done some other calculations; based on those numbers it turns out that students have caught over 17,000 tadpoles, students have carried over 200,000 buckets of sap, and over 800 students have thrown up on a bus ride,” he added with a laugh.

The program has grown from its humble beginnings as a single portable at Laurel Creek Conservation area maintenance yard in 1969. Over the years, outdoor education gradually opened more and more centres to accommodate the growing need.

First, the Blair Centre opened in 1970,  then the Wrigley Corners location in 1973. The opening of the Laurel Creek Centre was in 1977, a shared facility with the Grand River Conservation Authority. The Camp Heidelberg location is a partnership with the K-W Optimist Club and opened in 1996.

There were many more tweaks and changes throughout the half-century-long history, including the refurbishing (1990) and eventual closing (1996) of the Erbsville PS location due to budget cuts.  Another notable occurrence was the installation of a portable classroom at the Huron Natural Area in 2007.

Other speech topics included climate change, long-time educators, logo history, and the tenacity and friendless of employees. Frank Glew, an author and former educator for 35 years, described the work atmosphere among staff as idyllic.

“I respected these people and admired them. It was more like a family than it was a department – they were a great bunch of people,” said Glew.

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