For children, being different is being vulnerable. Last week, I accompanied eight very different primary school students on a visit to Forest Valley Outdoor Education Centre at Finch Ave. near Dufferin St. They were learning about respecting the many faces of nature — about respecting the branch of a cedar tree, a pileated woodpecker, a squirrel, a fox, a pair of mallard ducks, a hawk, raccoons, and clouds that reminded them variously of a lady dancer, an ice cream cone, and a pair of glasses.
By extension they were learning that differences can be celebrated. And by further extension, that in a world of differences, they too will surely have a place.
Among them, they represented five languages, seven religions, and eight countries — Guatemala, Equator, Argentina, Jamaica, India, Vietnam, Somalia, and North Toronto’s Canada.
As with all children, their journey from infancy to maturity is going to be an odyssey in search of belonging. And their success in the journey is going to depend largely upon their valuing themselves.
It’s the conviction of Sandee Sharpe, who is site manager of the centre and a teacher, that there is a powerful link between outdoor learning and a sense of self worth. That acquiring respect for diversity in nature leads to comfort in one’s own diversity, and in the world around.
The students, six to eight years old, spent five hours at the 55-hectare centre. They didn’t actually see a fox, but they saw its tracks. Nor did they see raccoons, but they saw nesting cavities in large black willows. The birds and squirrels they did spot.
One little boy, after pointing out a crow to his classmates, was very pleased. « I’m a good looker,’’ he confided solemnly.
The west branch of the Don River flows through the property, and the mallards feeding at the edge paid no attention as we stood watching three metres away. I marvelled at how clear the water was, so unlike the turgid brown of the lower Don. The children seemed to marvel at everything — which delighted their teacher, Suzanne McClennon.
« It’s the sense of wonder and joy that’s important,’’ she said. « All the intellectual stuff is nice, but what I want is wonder. We don’t have time for it any more, especially urban kids, and if the school system doesn’t give it to them, where are they going to get it?’’.
She teaches at Baycrest Public School on Bathurst St., north of Lawrence Ave., and for the past 15 years has been teaching special education.
The centre serves 165 schools in Toronto, primarily in the north and east, with five to seven class trips a day. This year about 20,000 students in 850 classes will visit. Another 380 classes are still on the waiting list and won’t get to visit unless there is a cancellation.
For the children, the high point of the day was tapping a maple tree. Each child helped turn the brace and bit to drill the hole. Two cleaned the hole, three hammered in the spile (spigot), and two hung the bucket.
A fire was burning in the the syrup shack, and sap was simmering. The syrup will be displayed at the Royal Winter Fair, and probably will win recognition. Last year’s entry placed eleventh. The year before it was eighth. An award this year will give them a sense of proprietorship, Sharpe says. And that, as always, will be a great source of pride.
For me, the high point came as one of the centre’s guides showed the children how to rub the scale leaves on a cedar twig, and then to smell the pungent oil left on their fingers. Watching them stare into the beyond as they smelled, and then break into delighted grins, was wonder enough for me.
In future classes they’ll learn more about the many parts to nature. How everything has a place and a role. How nature, as Sharpe puts it, has doorways for all of them to walk through. And how there is strength in diversity.
There’ll be no need to tell them it’s okay to be different. They’ll have seen it’s a good thing, and part of all life.