Kids in Muskoka have enviable summers – with the beach and the outdoors close at hand, it’s all about carefree fun. In September, as the school year approaches, you can almost hear the collective groans echoing across the lakes. But what if school were almost like being at camp, complete with a beach and forest and outdoor fun? At Tawingo College, it is.
Outdoor education for everyone
The school’s outdoor education focus starts right with its youngest students – the outdoor kindergarten program, which includes pre-K students, has them learning outside in all kinds of weather.
The school has indoor classrooms, of course, but outside is their other classroom – all of Tawingo’s 270 acres are available to the teachers and their instructions are to take their students outside as much as possible. And they love it.
“Many science classes take place outside – rather than read about a stream study, we do a stream study – and phys ed is outside because we don’t have a gym,” says Tawingo’s principal Tia Pearse.
The kids are happiest outside so why not teach them when they are happiest? Then they equate learning with happiness. That’s what we really solidify with our outdoor kindergarten program. They are such happy, peaceful, easy-going, helpful, and kind kids because they are outside all the time. That relationship they build with nature transfers to the relationships they build with each other.
Tia Pearse, Principal at Tawingo College
Outdoor education is part of the curriculum for every student. In the fall and spring, students spend time at the school’s waterfront on Lake Vernon learning water safety and how to swim, canoe and kayak. They learn how to pitch a tent. They learn how to build an appropriate fire for what they are cooking and how to keep a fire going in the rain. There is never a snow day and recess is always outside, even in the rain or in the cold.
“We say there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes,” says Tia, adding that they monitor students, especially the littlest ones, to ensure they are dressed appropriately for the weather. “Being outside so much and getting that outdoor ed piece, they come out with skills that will help them enjoy nature and not get frustrated with it.”
And no electronic devices are allowed at school, so at recess students play. They play soccer, gaga ball, pick up baseball, and road hockey or they’ll go into the woods and create forts.
“They are completely unplugged. Even our senior students will play imaginatively at recess – and when you say that about grade 7/8s you might think ‘that’s weird’ but when you think that they’re only 12, of course they should be playing. They’re kids.”
Don’t forget about the arts
In addition to a strong environmental stewardship focus, Tawingo College also emphasizes arts education.
“All of the kids take art, music and drama and all of the kids are in the year-end show,” says Tia. “It’s not a club, it’s not an after school thing. It’s part of the curriculum. When you start them performing in kindergarten, they never have a chance to get nervous. By the time they graduate they’ve got 10 or 11 shows under their belts and it doesn’t faze them at all to perform in front of an audience. It gives them life skills – they can stand up confidently in front of a group, they can project their voice, they can make eye contact.”
And, thanks to that exposure, they’ve likely developed an appreciation for each of the art forms and maybe even a passion for one.
All of the classes at Tawingo College are split grades – the K-pals (ages 3-5) are in a class of no more than 16 students with two teachers; grades 1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8 have an average of 13 or 14 students. The small class sizes allow teachers to focus on literacy and math skills for each individual student.
“There is a balance between wanting the class to have enough social options and being small enough that they are getting lots of attention,” says Tia. “Parents appreciate the small class sizes.”
Tia knows all of the parents – and many of the grandparents and even babysitters – by name. She greets them at the driveway every morning when they drop their children off and they use that opportunity to check in, ask questions, and mention any concerns.
She knows the students almost as well as her own children, too – most have been there right since kindergarten, although some do transfer in from the public system.
The parents who are looking to put their kids here aren’t doing so to escape from the public board – they just like our philosophy. The outdoor focus is important to them, they like the small class sizes. We do get kids coming to us through the elementary school years because, in their parents’ eyes, they just aren’t working to their full potential.
Getting them to realize that potential is the challenge of any educator. At Tawingo, they’ve developed a curriculum – the neuro-diversity curriculum – that helps students learn what works best for them as individual learners.
“We teach them how to understand their learning style and how their brain works through their own self discovery,” explains Tia. “They know exactly what time of day they learn best, which subjects come easily and which are hard, how to study so that they’ll bank things in their memory — they know these things about themselves and can be responsible for their own optimum learning. And they learn that it’s okay to say ‘I’m not good at this, this is hard for me’ – because there’s something hard for everyone – and how to work on it or work around it.”
And that often builds empathy. If students know that they’re not good at everything then they know that others aren’t either and can be helpful and understanding when someone else is struggling.
Students at Tawingo College aren’t just classmates – they’re part of a community. They all each lunch – which is provided as part of the tuition – together, family style, and the older students take turns sitting with the youngest ones to help them if they need it. The grade 7/8s run the after school program for a small fee as a year-end trip fundraiser.
They even do homework together. The school day ends later than most – at 3:55 – and the extra time is used for doing homework at the end of the day. “We do that so kids don’t take homework home. We are conscious that we can’t offer them extracurricular teams – we don’t have enough kids – so we know they are doing those activities outside of school. We give them lots of time to get their work done so that when they leave here, they are free to do other activities without thinking ‘but I have so much homework’. Kids get enough school. And we want them to play because their years of play are so limited.”
For more information about Tawingo College, visit tawingocollege.net.
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