Nurturing natural connections



In the wild.

Jenn Gill’s classroom is the boreal forest. Literally.

As a teacher at the Kingfisher Lake Outdoor Education Centre, she spends the vast majority of her days out of doors, guiding elementary and high-school students on hikes (on snowshoes when the terrain demands it), mucking about in soil and ponds as kids learn about the organisms living there, cross-country skiing, canoeing, or studying wildlife skulls and skeletons. “It’s very rare that we’ll outright cancel a program because of weather — even on those -40°C days. We may come inside a bit sooner, but for the most part, we’re outside. It’s wonderful.”

Teaching at Kingfisher — part of the Lakehead Public School Board in Thunder Bay, Ontario — is Jenn’s dream job. There’s the “spending the bulk of every day outdoors” thing. There are her amazing colleagues, who inspire her daily. “And I get to turn kids onto nature. It’s really gratifying, especially with the kids who don’t necessarily get the opportunity to get out in the natural world that often. Seeing them begin to feel more connected to our land, caring about — and caring for — where they live, that’s really powerful and hopeful.”

Born in Sarnia, Ontario, Jenn moved to Thunder Bay at 18 to pursue a degree in outdoor recreation at Lakehead University and picked up her teaching diploma as well. She’s been in the city since — except, of course, when she disappears into the forest, or the rivers and lakes of the surrounding wilderness, often in the company of her husband, Ian, and their two kids, ages eight and nine.

Whether she’s at work or with her family; in the city shuttling kids to soccer and piano; or out on a backwoods canoe trip, though, what ties it all together for Jenn is a sense of place and belonging. “Being part of a community — and that includes the natural community — is a very big piece of our life puzzle. We need to feel a sense of connection to the places we live, the people we live with. You feel more hope when you’re part of something; you want to care for that place.”

It’s one reason Jenn, now 43, loves being outdoors as much as she is. “Outside, there aren’t any layers or filters between you and the world — no walls, just the clothes on your body. You feel like you belong.”

That sense of belonging is something that Jenn and Ian work hard to instill in their own kids — primarily, she says, by “just loving them to bits. And then trying to be as balanced and true to our hearts as we can while balancing the needs that they have living in our current culture.”

Front and centre are the ongoing (“Every. Single. Day.”) discussions that Jenn and Ian find themselves having their nine-year-old about screen time. “I’ve kind of struggled with that from the start. He is genuinely interested in screens. And I’m trying to understand that. I mean, part of fitting into a community or group of people does have to do with the shows you watch on TV or the games you play on your computer or the way you communicate with your friends on a device.”

For now, Jenn and Ian are vigilant about limiting their kids’ screen time and monitoring the content they consume. And their son is equally vigilant about suggesting that those limits might be extended. “I’m sure that we’ll keep having these discussions until he’s old enough and has enough money to be able to do exactly what he wants,” says his mom.

There’s also the work of balancing life: being a parent with a full-time job, managing kids’ busy schedules, finding time to be together, and making time for her own creative outlets. As much as Jenn craves the outdoors, and as fiercely as she loves her kids, part of her misses the time she used to be able to spend in her basement, on her own, working with clay.

“Deep down, I’m a potter. I have a full studio in the basement. I used to do it all the time, but life’s big shifts kind of got in the way — these days, I find it very difficult to fit it in, between working full time and wanting to spend as much time as possible with my kids when I’m not. I’m really fed right now with work and life, and I can also see a time when I’ll be able to do more pottery, and that sounds really good.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty else to take up own and her kids’ attention: soccer and music practice — Ian is an accomplished guitarist, while Jenn is learning to play her grandmother’s mandolin; the kids take piano, violin, and guitar — bike rides, hiking, and skiing. And, of course, camping: car camping at nearby provincial parks, weekend canoe trips, a canoe trip for her daughter’s eighth birthday, on which Jenn guided a group of little girls and their moms for a few nights in the wilderness.

The family has also taken a two-week-long canoe trip each summer since Jenn’s first pregnancy — “so, the kids have literally been doing this their entire lives; they’ve never not known it. It’s amazing, watching them grow and learn and play, how free they are in the wild.”

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 ParentFull 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 co-editor 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.

The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Join us on Facebook.

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