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Equinox to expand outdoor learning

When kindergarten students learn early math at Equinox Holistic Alternative School, they might add two plus two acorns, or measure the width of a puddle.

Equinox was the first public school in Canada to offer an outdoor kindergarten when it opened five years ago, in a building shared with Roden Public School near Gerrard and Coxwell.

Carla Troper is co-chair of the Equinox parent council and has two children in the kindergarten.

“They love it,” she says, adding that the two all-day kindergarten classes spend at least half the day outside in all but the coldest weather.

“You’re learning about nature from nature.”

But for now at least, the schoolyard at Equinox, which runs along Ashdale Avenue on the school’s east side, is mainly concrete and asphalt. There is some grass, a few large trees, even clusters of tiny stools made from tree stumps.

Still, Troper said, “It’s not really the best physical space for a nature-based program.”

To fix that, school staff, city officials, and the Equinox parent council are organizing a $175,000 redesign of the outdoor learning area, to be done in several stages. A draft plan completed last May shows the asphalt replaced by a footpath and model streambed winding past sand features and linden trees, bordered at one end by a willow gate.

More than $30,000 has been raised by the parents’ efforts alone, and Toronto city council is considering a motion to chip in $45,000 from the levy on three nearby housing developments.

Together with a LiveGreen grant from the city and funding from the TDSB, the project is far enough along that a landscape architect is now drawing detailed construction plans.

Principal Mark Lasso said when it’s finished, the enhanced schoolyard will be used not only by Equinox students, but some Roden students and nearby residents as well.

“Apart from Greenwood Park, in this area there’s really not a lot of park space,” he said.

Troper agrees.

“It’s really grown into something that’s about the entire community, beyond just our little kindergarten,” she said.

Already, Troper said several teachers from across Canada and the US have visited Equinox to see how nature-based learning can be offered in an urban setting.

While there are only 40 students in the kindergarten, she hopes the idea catches on at other schools. Last fall, all 85 elementary schools in the Simcoe County district north of Toronto started outdoor classrooms using provincial funds for all-day kindergarten.

Troper said she hopes fostering a connection to nature in children means they will cherish the environment as they grow older.

“It’s hard to protect something you don’t have a connection to,” she said.

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