Outdoor learning program spares N.W.T. college students from fully online semester

Trena Weyallon moved from Behchoko to Yellowknife this fall to take the two-year early learning and child care diploma program at Aurora College. 

School is now in its third week and she’s only met half her class and one of her instructors. 

“It’s quite different doing it online,” she said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven nearly all college programming online, with at least one exception. Early learning and child care program students in Yellowknife are enrolled in a mentorship program with Bushkids, a land-based learning program that organizes outdoor play for school-aged children every Tuesday and holds outdoor planning sessions on Thursdays. 

“This is kinda like our classroom and not our classroom,” said Weyallon at the Bushkids site, near the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s healing camp. “I like it out here.”

And while it may be anything but a normal school year, Weyallon is happy to be learning. 

“I’ve been out of school for six years now,” she said. “I’ve already learned so much in three weeks just about myself and the other interns and my instructors and I can’t wait to bring that into my community.” 

‘I didn’t expect to start school on a computer,’ says Gloria Francis. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Topics at Bushkids include safe use of tools, wilderness skills, risk management, and staying warm and comfortable on the land. The goal is to help children and educators build “healthy relationships with ourselves, each other, and the Land.”

It’s a change of pace from classroom “Moodles” (an online education platform the college uses) and video conferencing. 

“I didn’t expect to start school on a computer,” said Gloria Francis, who applied to the program before the pandemic hit. 

Online learning, she said, is not without its challenges. 

“It’s a lot harder, I find, at home on the computer to keep my mind focussed on school and not try to fold my laundry or cook supper early. And it is a little bit challenging navigating the technology with our class because we all had to be on the same page at the same time, for class.”

‘I love being outdoors. And I just love kids. That’s why I went into this program,’ says Sarah Hopkins. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

In 2018/2019, Aurora College enrolled over 500 full-time and 1,200 part-time students throughout the territory. A spokesperson for the college said it was too early to tell how the pandemic has affected enrolment this year. 

“When I applied, COVID[-19] wasn’t around,” said Sarah Hopkins of Yellowknife. “I thought I would be in class with my classmates.” 

That’s one reason Hopkins has seized the opportunity to study outdoor learning.

“I’m glad I can get out and meet new people and enjoy the land right now,” she said. “I love being outdoors. And I just love kids. That’s why I went into this program.” 

‘This is so new to me, I’m giving it 100 per cent,’ says Buddy Kenny of Deline. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Buddy Kenny came from Deline to start the program.

He’s spending much of his time in his apartment doing online courses — “the technology, I am so new to it” — and said he’s had some technical challenges to overcome. 

Kenny appreciates the opportunity this class gives him to spend time with his classmates. 

“I love it, actually,” he said. “This is so new to me, I’m giving it 100 per cent.” 

Michelle Krutko finished the program last year. She now works with Bushkids as a knowledge holder. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Michelle Krutko grew up in Tulita. She’s a recent graduate of the early learning and child care diploma and now works as a knowledge keeper with Bushkids. 

“One of the cool things with Bushkids is the children and the new college interns get to explore the hands on, the face-to-face, and also keeping the distance and doing it in a safe way,” she said. 

“I’m pretty excited.”

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