Local students gear up for outdoor learning thanks to community support

“It feels like people have hope for this program and they want it to succeed,” says Danielle, a student at Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School.
A group of students from Mill Bay Nature School stand in front of Robinson's Outdoor Store smiling and holding gear like hiking backpacks, tents and more.
Students from Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School’s Qwiqwul tst tse program spent a morning at Robinson’s Outdoor Store in Victoria where they learned about outdoor equipment and survival, purchased gear for the class thanks to a community donation, and received donated gear from the store. Photo courtesy of Cayla Hoefsloot

Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School’s middle years program is set up for outdoor success thanks to generous monetary and gear donations from community members and Victoria-based Robinson’s Outdoor Store.

The program, in its first year, integrates the provincial curriculum into lessons from the natural and human landscapes of the Cowichan region. Students help guide their own learning by exploring their curiosities through inquiry and playfulness in an environment that embeds learning into everything they do. Elder-In-Residence Tousilum gifted the name Qwiqwul tst tse (“let’s talk”) to the program.

A large portion of the students’ time at school takes place outside of the classroom, where they go on hikes and walks in the Cowichan Valley. Students need to be comfortable to learn outside, and that means having the right gear and equipment, says Qwiqwul tst tse educator Brian Simmons.

“From an equity point of view, it’s really important for us that kids can join this program. And at this age, we’re stepping beyond the boundaries of the municipal forest, we’re going beyond the simple day hikes. We’re going into places that feel alone and really far away and they need to be prepared,” Simmons says.  “And yet, to have a program that comes with a shopping list is very wrong to us.”

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A $2,000 donation from the community, plus the support of Robinson’s Outdoor Store in Victoria, has made it possible for all students in the program to partake in outdoor activities like hiking and camping, and has students looking forward to future adventures.

“It feels like people have hope for this program and they want it to succeed,” says Qwiqwul tst tse student Danielle. “That donation will help us have better camping trips and hikes and we can be more prepared for things.”

A program that offers something different

Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School first opened in 2018 to serve students between Kindergarten and Grade 7. Planning for the Qwiqwul tst tse program, which adds Grade 8 and 9, began two years ago.

Some students were expressing anxiety about moving on from the school, Simmons says, and wanted to continue in the kind of learning environment that Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School offers.

“Kids are saying, ‘I need something different,’ for whatever reason … so we felt that it was our obligation to build something,” Simmons says.

There are currently 12 students in the program, between Grade 6 and Grade 9. Some have been at Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School for a few years, while others are new to the school, having joined specifically for the middle years program.

Jack Talbot recently moved to Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School and says it has been a positive change for him. He says he’s learning more because of the hands-on outdoor experiences and because students get a say in what and how they learn.

“I think I’ve made way more friends here than at my other schools. And it’s easier for me, because at other schools, I didn’t get to be outside much,” Talbot says.

Another student, Vienna Wright, has been at Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School for five years and says that being able to put her learning into her own hands with support from teachers has been “awesome.”

A photo of Mill Bay Nature School student Vienna Wright, taken from the shoulders up. She is smiling and has long brunette hair. She is wearing a lavender coloured hoodie. The blurred background behind her is of her classroom.
Vienna Wright has been at Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School for five years and is now part of the middle years Qwiqwul tst tse program. She says she feels supported at the school. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“There’s not really any other school that I’ve been to that really supports me,” Wright says. “They don’t force us to do anything and they also don’t do everything for us.”

Qwiqwul tst tse educator Cayla Hoefsloot says students are interviewed before they attend Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School to ensure it’s the right fit for them. She says the school seeks out students who are keen to know more about their learning styles and to direct their own learning as they approach high school.

She notes that the on-the-land learning is also guided by Hul’qumi’num Elders and Knowledge Keepers, who share teachings from work that has happened on the lands for millenia. 

Related story: “10,000 steps towards a better future”: Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School holds ceremony to launch new project

“It’s about putting all of those teachings together and understanding that we can’t really learn about Cowichan Valley rivers — the focus of our study this year — without actually going to them and bringing up that knowledge we’re learning and applying it out there,” Hoefsloot says.

Integrating curriculum with the outdoors

When asked about their favourite activities at school, students in Qwiqwul tst tse enthusiastically talk about hikes along the Cowichan River and up the six mountains in North Cowichan’s municipal forest reserve — Mount Prevost, Mount Sicker, Mount Tzouhalem, Stoney Hill, Mount Richards, and Maple Mountain. While weather got in the way of some planned camping trips at the end of 2022, the students say they’re looking forward to multi-day hikes and camping with their class this year.

A photo of Abbey Simmons, taken from the shoulder-up. She is smiling and has long, blonde hair with the left side of her head closely shaved. She is wearing a bright pink sweater. The blurred background is of the classroom with a carpet and chairs seen behind her.
Abbey Simmons says she’s looking forward to more hikes and camping with her classmates. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

“Part of the upside of having such a small class is that we can do more adventures,” says Qwiqwul tst tse student Abbey Simmons. “Last year we focused on forests and this year we focused on rivers. We’re learning how the water works and how many different things there are [in the water].”

Abbey says one of her favourite moments exploring the Cowichan River so far was when they were at Skutz Falls. She describes morning mist coming off the calm river water and how exciting it was to see salmon jumping up from the water and through the mist.

“That was a moment I really liked. We don’t get to see that very often,” Abbey says.

A wide river bank leading to the river which has mist coming off it. The sun shines in the top left corner of the photo surrounded by blue sky and rays of sun peer through the mist. In the distance the river bends and is surrounded by trees with mountains seen in the far distance. Silhouettes of students walking and sitting along the river are on the river bank closest to the photographer in this image.
During a hike along the Cowichan River, students witnessed salmon jumping out of the water and through the mist. Photo courtesy of Brian Simmons

The Qwiqwul tst tse program integrates learnings from the land with various subjects, such as math, science, geography and more. As students explore, they’re prompted with questions that spark curiosity and inquiry.

“Brian kind of plans it all out and he asks us what we feel like are just random questions but then we find out later that it’s actually part of the curriculum,” says Qwiqwul tst tse student Danielle. “Let’s say there’s a dead salmon on the trail. He’ll ask us why we think it was there and have theories about it.”

Students in the program say this style of learning — self-directed and outdoors — gives them the freedom to learn and explore what they’re curious about in a way that best suits their needs.

“It feels like a lot more freedom than just having to sit inside all the time,” says Qwiqwul tst tse student Juna Murray. “It was really hard for me to focus at my old school so it’s nice to be able to have our own way of learning.”

A photo of Juna Murray, taken from the chest-up. She is smiling and has long, curly, brunette hair. She is wearing a black hoodie with a neon green skull in the centre and the words "axel busters" above the skull.
Qwiqwul tst tse student Juna Murray says she feels freedom to learn in a way that suits her needs at Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

A class visit to Robinson’s

Last year, the school received a $2,000 donation from the community to put towards outdoor gear for students, sending Simmons on a search to find the perfect place to spend it. He first reached out to Robinson’s Outdoor Store in Victoria and says his search stopped there.

Store co-owner Erin Boggs says she was thrilled to support Q’shintul/Mill Bay Nature School and not only helped maximize the $2,000 so the school could get the best value for the money, but invited the students to the store to learn about camping and hiking gear and how to use the equipment properly. Boggs also donated gently used and returned items from the store to the school, as well as her own hiking backpack.

“It was just kind of a no-brainer,” Boggs says. “When I saw the email [from Simmons] I said, ‘We’ll make it happen and we’ll make it work.’ And I think the neatest thing was once we went into that experience, the level of involvement that the kids had was so touching.”

The Qwiqwul tst tse class spent a morning at the store asking questions, learning about outdoor equipment and picking out gear for the class. Hoefsloot says students learned about the science behind how to stay warm outdoors and the mechanics of how the gear works.

A photo taken from above the students so the tops of their heads are seen. They are gathered at Robinson's Outdoor Store, lining the left side of the photo. In front of them (middle of photo) are hiking shoes and outdoor clothing laid on the floor. On the right is a staff member bent over some clothing showing it to students.
Qwiqwul tst tse students gather around some outdoor clothing and shoes at Robinson’s Outdoor Store. Photo courtesy of Cayla Hoefsloot

“[The staff] were super respectful of the children in a way that doesn’t always happen when you’re out with kids in a school group,” Hoefsloot says. “There was just total respect for them as teenagers.”

The class went back with six tents, base layers, hiking boots, sleeping bags, sleeping mats and more. They were even given items that need to be patched up so students can learn how to mend gear on their own.

When asked about their visit to the store, Qwiqwul tst tse students say they feel grateful for the learning experience and the support they received. They also say they’re thankful for the monetary donation that allowed them to purchase gear for the class.

“The gear is really nice for other students who don’t have it so now we all can go on hikes together,” Talbot says.

Boggs says the visit left her considering the impact a school like this one would have had on her life if she had the chance to go when she was younger. She says she believes it’s important for kids to connect with nature and get outside for several reasons, including mental health benefits and the confidence that develops from navigating the outdoors.

“I just think it’s so neat that this is part of their development,” Boggs says. “Not only are kids having that connection [to nature], but they’re really going to be stewards of nature and protect it.”

Qwiqwul tst tse educators Brian Simmons and Cayla Hoefsloot show off the Witness Mountains display in the school gym. They are standing in front of, and gesturing at, a wooden floor-to-ceiling display of six different mountains, all done to scale, lining the room from left to right. On the wooden mountains (they're flat) are hanging objects like leaves, branches, a drum, signs, cross section of a tree, paintings etc.
Qwiqwul tst tse educators Brian Simmons and Cayla Hoefsloot show off a display called Witness Mountain, inspired by master carver Carey Newman’s the Witness Blanket. Last year, students climbed six mountains in the Cowichan Valley and created this thoughtful display, including objects collected from the mountains. Photo by Shalu Mehta/The Discourse

The future of the program

Simmons says he sees the Qwiqwul tst tse program taking pupils even farther from home in the future, to expand their educational opportunities and interests.

“As kids get older, their ability to understand things broadens, which makes sense,” Simmons says. “But the things they can connect to in their world have to get bigger, too.”

As the middle years program is still new, Hoefsloot says the hope is to share more about Qwiqwul tst tse with the community and talk to families and kids who may be interested in joining the class.

“I would say that one of the biggest things that we try to communicate with people who are interested in coming [here] is that this is about really knowing yourself as a learner and being able to direct and manage your own learning, with us as supports,” Hoefsloot says. “And as they’re getting older, it’s more about them creating something that they want for themselves here.”

In the classroom, students learn about history, sustainability, Hul’qumi’num language and more — all at the same time. These lessons also connect the students to the natural environment around them. Simmons says pupils in the middle years program are often inspired by what they learn to bring positive change to their communities.

“It’s important that we learn how we can work on helping the salmon or making it so we still have those ecosystems and habitats,” Qwiqwul tst tse student Abbey says. “This school is pretty awesome.”

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