What if, instead of sending your child to a typical classroom each day, you could send them to a farm, forest, or to embark on an ocean voyage?
A handful of unique programs across Canada argue that these are actually the best ways for children to learn. There are also innovative programs — such as body movement, real-world experience, and personalized learning — to embrace the different ways kids and teens can grow into creative and contributing members of modern society.
If you're curious about educational options beyond blackboards and binders, check out these six unique Canadian schools and programs, and the different ways they approach learning.
1. Connecting to nature — Ottawa Forest and Nature School
What makes it different: Its home base is a cabin in a forest clearing, which includes an outdoor eating space, amphitheatre, and "natural playscape." Kids learn through outdoor play and connecting to nature. A typical day could include: making leaf rubbings, hiking, building forts, playing with tools, climbing trees, building fires. Note that this school is intended to connect children to nature as a complement to their formal education, not as a replacement, aside from preschoolers who can attend all day, five times a week.
Programs: Preschool (full and half days), full-day school, PD days, family programs and nature mornings, summer camp. Children generally attend the school one day a week, according to their website.
Philosophy: Forest and Nature School (FNS) is an educational approach that has existed worldwide since the 1950s, according to the parent's guidebook. "All FNS programs adhere to the following two principles, which also distinguish them from other outdoor and environmental education programs: regular and repeated access to a natural space, as well as child-directed, emergent and inquiry-based learning," the guidebook explains.
Learn more: Ottawa Forest and Nature School
2. Personalized learning — Summit Micro School (Formerly known as High Park Day School)
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What makes it different: It's a micro school with an average class size of 12 mixed-age students. These students are often split into a small group or taught by two or more teachers, according to their FAQs. The focus is on personalized, experiential, and project-based learning, as well as technology and innovation.
Programs: Kindergarten, junior school (grades 1 to 6), middle school (grades 7 to 8), after-school makerspace, March Break.
Philosophy: "We believe that all students have the potential to be active, independent thinkers and learners. We believe that an effective education is not a uniform one," the school states on its website. Teachers differentiate their lessons and styles to provide a personalized program for every student.
Learn more: High Park Day School
3. Learning abroad — Class Afloat: West Island College International
Location: Lunenburg, N.S.
What makes it different: The classroom is a tall ship that sails the oceans and visits ports all over the world. According to its website, learning is hands-on, whether it's art history at a port in Europe, marine biology while sailing the Mediterranean Sea, or acting as crew to the 500-ton vessel. (In 2010, a Class Afloat vessel capsized in the South Atlantic but all 42 Canadian students on board, along with 22 internationals, were rescued safely about 40 hours after the ship sank.)
Programs: Grade 11, 12, university and gap year students.
Philosophy: "Our mission is to offer a transformative learning experience — the foundation for a lifetime journey of discovery and success," the school says on its website.
Learn more: Class Afloat: West Island College International
4. Movement-based learning — Moving EDGEucation
Location: It's not a school, but a learning approach being implemented by hundreds of teachers in school boards across Ontario (as well as other parts of Canada), that can be facilitated by teachers anywhere, according to the program's website.
What makes it different: It uses movement and social-emotional learning techniques as a tool to teach different subjects. "Imagine a classroom where students learn up on their feet, moving to music," the website explains.
Programs: Students of any age (as well as teachers and principals) can participate. Program facilitators can work directly with students, or train teachers, and provide resources and lessons for them to implement the approach in their classrooms on an ongoing basis.
Philosophy: Everything they do is based on "engaging the "Body, Brain and Being' while learning," and "celebrating unity and individuality as a classroom community," Moving EDGEucation notes on its website.
Learn More: Moving EDGEucation
5. Working the land — Farm Roots Mini School
Location: Delta, B.C.
What makes it different: Students take core grades 10 through 12 courses in a schoolhouse on a sustainable farm, while also working on the land. Kids attend the mini school campus every second day, and their regular high school in between.
Programs: Students can take courses in the grade 10, 11, and 12 curriculum. Learners can also participate in a work experience course, dual credit at Kwantlen University, or an independent directed studies course.
Philosophy: Course content is wrapped around building and running the farm, the website notes. "The day at Farm Roots is structured around learning; no bell rings to tell students it's time to finish learning about Leadership and time to start learning about Geography, for example. Life doesn't work that way and farms don't work that way; this mini school doesn't work that way either."
Learn More: Farm Roots Mini School
6. Real-world experience — Seven Oaks Met School
Location: Winnipeg, Man.
What makes it different: It's "high school, done differently" at Met's two locations in Winnipeg. There are just 240 learners between the two small schools. Classes of about 15 students have the same teacher (called an advisor) for all four years of school, CBC News reported in 2016. Its curriculum is based on a student's interests, and kids spend two days a week immersed in hands-on learning (including internships, attending shadow days, and gaining workplace experience), according to the parent information package.
Programs: Grades 9 through 12.
Philosophy: "Our commitment is to foster a safe and inspiring learning environment centered on goals that are relevant to 'one student at a time'," the website notes. "Our approach of authentic learning is based on meaningful relationships, where relevant and rigorous work is accomplished through internships and project-based learning."
Learn more: Seven Oaks Met School
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