Skip to content

Bringing Nature Back to School: Q&A With Principal Cheryl Hayles

Climate Ready Schools pilot project at Milton, Ontario public school will boost outdoor play and environmental literacy.

Group of children walk next to forest looking in awe at nature Image: Istock/FatCamera
Image: Istock/FatCamera

Published on May 16, 2022

There’s a reason we were always told to turn off the TV and go play outside. For decades, studies have shown that outdoor play nurtures children's physical, intellectual, cognitive and social development.

But those important benefits don’t need to take a back seat during the school day. As a space where children grow and develop relationships, Canada’s school grounds — and their hundreds of thousands of acres of land — provide a vital space for outdoor play and environmental literacy. How schools and their school grounds are designed plays a major role in how a city or community will, or will not, adapt to climate change.

To learn more about why it’s so important for children to develop a relationship with the natural environment during school hours, we spoke to Cheryl Hayles, principal at Irma Coulson Public School in Milton, Ontario, where a pilot project is transforming the school ground into an outdoor learning hub. 

The project — a partnership with Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools program and the Halton District School Board — aims to set an example of how Canadian school boards can extend the use of school grounds as a space for anyone to gather, relax, play and learn beyond school hours. It will also provide a sense of place that reflects the school community, building pride and ownership in public space through participation and stewardship.

Cheryl tells us why she’s so excited for the project and why kids can benefit from spending time in nature:

EVERGREEN: Can you tell us how you personally connect to the natural world, and why it’s so important?

Cheryl: For me, nature is the spiritual companion that helps me to stay present in my daily life. I live in the place I have chosen to live because there are trees to provide clean air, pathways for recreation, plants and creatures that distract from stress. My engagement with nature involves gardening, which provides peace, comfort and joy. 

Cheryl Hayles, principal at Irma Coulson Public School, wears sunglasses outside standing in front of plants at garden centre

As a child, the yard was a ready playground with trees to climb, a brook to catch and release tadpoles and lots of shrubbery for hide and seek games. After each engagement with nature, I feel better than when I started. I rely on the healing properties of nature to manage stress and protect my health.   

EVERGREEN: How do children benefit by spending time in nature?  

Cheryl: In the absence of natural environments on school grounds, educators plan trips to nature reserves to introduce our students to the benefits of nature. The Indigenous teachings of respect for Mother Nature is paramount in our outdoor education program. Our students not only learn about protecting the environment, but they also learn about social justice, environmental justice and the right for all beings to have nurturing spaces to thrive. 

EVERGREEN: Why is it so important for kids to connect with the natural environment at school, rather than solely outside school hours?

Cheryl: It’s an equity issue. Not every child has access to resources that ensure experiences in nature. Therefore, school programs that have built in opportunities for interaction with nature are important to support environmental literacy.

The other part that is key is the climate change discussion. Our students are our future influencers and therefore must be at the centre of problem solving and solutions. Placing a Climate Ready School project on site ensures ownership for participation and outcomes. It also recultures the environment to include shade trees that are just a lovely spot for students to enjoy the outdoors.    

 

Creating an environment for play that is integrated in nature is significant in building students’ awareness of the potential of nature.
Cheryl Hayles, principal, Irma Coulson Public School

 

EVERGREEN: What excites you the most about this project?

Cheryl: Children have a natural inclination to play. The enthusiasm that play generates is contagious, so happy play moments invite others to participate! 

Creating an environment for play that is integrated in nature is significant in building students’ awareness of the potential of nature and, in doing so, increases their stewardship of the natural world. So much education has gone into helping students understand the impact of climate change. However, they often do not feel that they can be actively involved in contributing to reversing the negative effects of climate change. This project will become part of our natural environment and will be an open classroom for climate readiness education for our students.

EVERGREEN: What does it mean to you to be part of a pilot project like this?

Cheryl: I have been a longtime advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their report on human-induced climate change, raising the alarm on widespread disruption in nature and the impact on the lives of billions of people around the world. 

I see our project as just the initiative we need to engage school communities in partnership with like-minded organizations that are working to mitigate climate change!

Learn More

Evergreen’s Climate Ready Schools project builds on a 25-year legacy of transforming school grounds across the country into areas of green learning for both children and their community. The project aims to improve the overall design, management and educational use of schools and their school grounds by mitigating flood risk, adapting to climate change and serving the school and surrounding community during and outside of school hours. The project embeds Evergreen’s unique child-friendly participatory design process to inform the redevelopment of the schools and school grounds. 

The Climate Ready Schools program has been generously funded by the Balsam Foundation, Intact Financial, and other key funders, with in-kind support from Arup.