FORT ST. JOHN. B.C. – NEAT’s new program Wildlings went in front of City Council to share the success of their summer program and thank the City for the use of the community forest.
Wildlings is a child and youth program run through NEAT; this is a forward-thinking approach to getting children back to nature by way of a seven-week, full day, a summer program that runs out of the community forest.
NEAT Education Coordinator, Susan McGarvey recognized the need for an outdoor program when the ‘Food Secure Kids’ four-week school program was first introduced. A program based on food sustainability by teaching children about growing their own food, why this is important to know and to learn by hands-on experience outside as gardens were installed at participating schools. It was then McGarvey understood the connection that children needed to have with nature.
“What shocked us in the first couple of years were the amount of kids that had never really dug in dirt, did not want to get dirty or touch it, and even though we were crazy for asking them too, Even more than that, having the kids outside to sit in the grass, there were kids that would not sit in it, they did not want it touching them, they did not want to get dirty” McGarry goes on to say “I distinctly remember one moment when a little girl said my mom would be upset if I get dirty.”
These moments at the schools sparked the concept for Wildlings, as NEAT recognized a need for children to have the opportunity to be outside and be able to freely connect with nature and the surroundings, the question for NEAT was where would this nature-based program be run.
Reaching out to the Recreation Department of the City to ask for permission to use the Community forest is where it all began. The College came on board offering space in case the weather ever took a turn for the worse and allowed the program access to use their washrooms.
From there the program began, it was outside in the community forest for the children where the program provided an environment to take risks and learn their own sense of boundaries by rules that were created to empower the children and encourage them to trust themselves.
There was a lot of positive feedback and support for the program; Backcountry committed time weekly to come to teach the children how to use tools such as pocket knives the correct way safely. Search and Rescue taught the kids’ their ‘Hug a Tree’ program and the Library coming to read books and play games with the campers.
The program was profound and life-changing for some campers and even a staff member, being out and connected to nature changed the children, being in the forest all day affected the campers as they learned to love the forest and wanted to protect the space. The campers took on a natural stewardship of the forest getting upset if they found garbage and would collect it knowing they were to leave the space better than when they arrived in it.
This was a unique project that brought children back to using their imagination, playing with nature and having a taste of what being a kid was like before technology came into our lives.