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Learning en plein air

Lorraine Graves   Oct-31-2018

The children of the Terra Nova Nature School preschool enjoy the autumn leaves.

Photo by Chung Chow

When I tried to set up the shoot at Terra Nova Nature School preschool with our photographer, Chung Chow, I was worried about the weather. School co-director Emily Vera said, “We are outdoors for most of the time. It’s fine with us. They’ll be in raingear.”

And that’s the attitude that permeates the five-year-old school.



This preschool offers children outdoor education every day. They learn about life, the environment, growing things and how to have fun, structured and unstructured, out of doors, following the well-respected principles of the daycares, preschools and education system in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

“It was really important to us that we have a large amount of garden space so children are connecting to food, in an authentic and experiential way,” Vera says.

Vera and Kate Dawson are the school coordinators. That’s what their their job titles say but, in reality, they are so much more. They are the visionaries behind a spectacular success based at the Terra Nova Nature Park.

Terra Nova, as it is known now, sits at the northwestern tip of Lulu Island. Since time immemorial it has been home to the Musqueam people who lived, fished and harvested the land and sea’s bounty, calling the spot, “boiling water,” after a natural phenomenon in the waters nearby. The local elementary school uses an anglicised spelling of that name in the language of the Musqueam.

With the arrival of the settlers, it became farmland mainly inhabited by Canadians of Japanese ancestry.

Vera talks of a gift from the past farmers: “There are beautiful remnants of the fruit trees that were here.”

The land, scheduled to be completely developed into housing, formed the fulcrum of a hotly-debated civic election with those opposed to development and those in favour facing off. Richmondites voted. The make-up of council changed and Terra Nova was saved from further development by the City of Richmond.

From that decision has come the creation of the 63-acre Terra Nova Rural Park, beautiful parkland owned and managed by the City of Richmond.

After documenting the archeological excavations that told the same stories as the Musqueam elders’ of the long term use of the land, this corner of Lulu Island became the park we know today.

Two women, experienced and educated in teaching small children, independently had hopes of a school at Terra Nova for children and families that would reintroduce the outdoors to the people of Richmond. Then they came together.

“So we were just extraordinarily fortunate when Kate and I literally had this dream together of opening up an outdoor school in this place because we had both fallen madly in love with this beautiful space and a historic building built here in the early 1900s. It is the Edwardian cottage. It is so beautiful and whimsical.” says Vera.

Formerly a home to a Japanese-Canadian family for many decades, what has become known as the Edwardian cottage, needed a purpose.

“We proposed the idea of implementing an outdoor school in these lands in that historic building,” says Vera.

As the City of Richmond renovated the century-old farmhouse, Vera and Dawson looked for a neighbourhood partner.

“The Terra Nova Rural Park is actually in the programming catchment of the Thompson Community Association so they became a logical partner for us to have. And their board has been amazingly progressive considering it was a very novel and unique idea in Richmond. And they supported all the start up costs. Kate and I and all of our employees are actually employees of the Thompson Community Association,” Vera says.

In additional to the preschool, Dawson and Vera have other projects on the site that have also been going for five years for a wide range of ages and stages: “We run programs that are all titled Beyond Four Walls that range from birth to age 12. We have the Chickadees Program for caregivers and babies, and then we have parent and tot classes. We also run school-aged programs five to seven years-olds and eight to 12 year-olds.”

Vera talks of their program for home-schooled children: “And then we started a new program for children who are home-schooled which is our Beyond Four Walls Home Learners’ Program."

Vera says, “We do a lot of cooking in all of our program. We have done eight to 10 family cooking days.And we have developed an age-appropriate curriculum for food security.We want them to know where their food comes from.”The next family cooking day in their Beyond Four Walls Program is Saturday, Nov. 3.There are only a few spaces left.For information click here.

To register email natureschool@richmond.caor Phone: 604-238-8437.

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