Bringing nature to the classroom and the classroom into the wild

Get outside! (l to r) Natasha Robertson with Finley (8) and Malcolm (6) at Dinosaur Provincial Park this summer.

Natasha Robertson grew up in the tiny town of Ignace, Ontario (population 1,202).

“We lived on a dirt road with three other houses, outside of town,” says the 41-year-old mother of two. She remembers a childhood filled with the freedom to explore outside as much as possible, of wandering through the woods, building tree forts, playing down by the rock quarry. “I am who I am because I grew up surrounded by nature,” says Natasha. “And I’m trying to figure out how to give my kids the freedom to do the same.”

Part of that project has been the establishment of the Roots and Branches Forest School, just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, where Natasha now makes her home with her husband, Colin, and their two kids: Finley, age 8, and Malcolm, 6. There, about 50 students between the ages of 4 and 16 follow a part-time school curriculum based on mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotion regulation — with the boreal forest as their classroom.

In some ways, it’s a world away from Natasha’s first career as an elementary school teacher. In other ways, it’s not so different. She’d started to integrate mindfulness practices into her teaching years earlier, when she began to burn out from the demands of the job. “I had an SK–Grade 1 split class with more than a dozen kids who had special needs. I was sick all the time. I lost my voice. I started experiencing anxiety. And my mindfulness practice changed all of that.”

Finley and Malcolm explore the remains of their mom’s childhood tree fort on a family visit.

If it helped her, Natasha figured, mindfulness could also make a difference for her students. She began integrating mindfulness lessons into her curriculum, and her students responded. When she learned about The Child & Nature Alliance of Canada, which offers courses on how to integrate outdoor, natural spaces into kids’ education (and vice versa), she signed up for training — and fell in love with the program.

“The next year, I brought Forest School to my classroom. Every morning, I would take the kids outside. And every day, we’d spend longer and longer out there. My principal would be calling out, ‘But where’s your math?’ And I’d say, ‘It’s all there — we’re just doing it outside.’”

Her students were thriving. But although she tried, ultimately Natasha couldn’t get her school or the board to buy into the mindfulness and nature-based program that spoke so strongly to her. And so she left the security of her full-time teaching job to follow a path that felt more sustainable to her. From there, Roots and Branches was born.

Natasha took a leave from her school board job, cancelled the family’s summer vacation, applied for a grant to build an outdoor classroom, and spent a summer building yurts and carving paths through the forests on her family’s 5-acre property, her kids at her side. “I’d hand them each a pair of clippers and ask them to go clear a trail, and they’d come back 10 minutes later with the entire job done, so proud.” The guilt she felt over not giving her kids a so-called “proper” summer holiday melted away when she noticed just how much fun they were having. “Looking back, it was a great summer, spent in the backyard, no schedules, no calendars.”

Today, the school is thriving, with four teachers contributing to the mix. Natasha also offers forest therapy and sound therapy and is beginning to explore the possibility of corporate, team-building retreats — all of which, she hopes, will help keep the school (which is tuition based) viable and accessible. This year, she formally resigned from the school board.

Some of that original guilt is still with her: a large part of the reason she left her full-time teaching job was to be able to spend more time with her children. “I plan all these beautiful lessons, and I’m in front of the computer, and in the end, I’m not with them as much as I want to be. Or I’m with them, but my kids have to share me with all the other kids. My son, in particular, can have a hard time with that.”

Ohm! Natasha and her husband, Colin, with their kids.

What helps, she says, is seeing the bigger picture: watching her students gain the skills to manage their anxiety and regulate their emotions, seeing them develop the love for nature and the outdoors that she grew up with, and knowing that she’s setting an example for her kids by following her passions:

“Every time I have to make a difficult decision, I think, ‘What would I want my kids to do?’ That’s how I decided to resign from the school board. I mean, on the surface, it that was a crazy thing to do. I left a secure job, a good salary, to follow my passions. My parents told me I was nuts. So did my husband. But I knew that if my child had a passion that was driving her, I would want her to follow that dream. And the choice was easy when I thought about it like that.”


SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines,and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.

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