By Sharda N. Sawh

The mood of the school can be summed up by three things that I found outside one of the classrooms; a telescope facing outward to the natural space, a willow chair at the end of a hallway and Java, a gentle chocolate lab. Did I mention the sound of crickets echoing in the hallway?

The Toronto District School Board Nature and Science School has a simple philosophy: to instill strong environmental values in our children and to teach them to cooperate and communicate with their peers. Lessons that will last a lifetime.

Lifetime? That may be a lot to expect from a small public school but the lucky children who participate in the overnight science and nature programme in grade 5 and 6 leave with a better sense of environmental responsibility.

The school is small and beautifully situated on Ward’s Island. It has functioned as a regular public school since 1888, and also as a science and nature school to visiting students from the Toronto District School Board since 1960. The population of the regular public school is a only 190 students, most of whom live at Harbourfront, St. Lawrence Market or Bathurst Quay. A handful of the students are part of the local Island community. Families living outside the community drop their children off to catch the ferry at 8:30 a.m.

Even getting to the school is a treat. A short boat ride with about 180 children took me to the Ward’s Island dock. Students and boat supervisors loaded onto buses that drove us on a quiet, traffic-free ride to the school doors. The entrance is constructed with huge Haliburton and Muskoka white pine logs which continue into the main hallway.

The Island school is simple from the outside. It does not upstage the natural spaces surrounding it. This includes fully naturalized areas adjacent to most of the school, several woodland groves to the west and north, a variety of wetlands, and a bird and butterfly habitat throughout. Several classes face onto a mixed green garden courtyard. There are current plans to add an amphitheatre for more instructional space and to extend the existing playground. The Vice Principal, John Goodyear, explains that the architect’s concept was to create a ‘school in the woods’. The school has been designed so that children’s view from inside any classroom is natural beauty from all angles.

This is still a regular public school: The Science and Nature wing of the school accommodates 70 visiting students and contains several unique features. This includes dormitories, a greenhouse and indoor water garden designed to filter and recirculate water, as well as solar photo-votalic panels designed to assist in providing some electricity for the school.

The Principal, Crister Nilsson, has managed this school for just under a decade. Staffed with good teachers and specialized science instructors, his ship seems to run itself. Java, Mr. Nilsson’s chocolate Labrador, is part of the office staff and a comfort to a child with a scraped knee.

Public schools from all over Toronto have the chance to participate in the school’s natural science programme. Over two and a half days, visiting students learn about cooperation, community and the valuable lessons of conservation. Everything at this school is used as a teaching tool during their overnight day stay here. The two ponds alone offer lessons on natural filtration systems, life cycles, ecosystems and habitats, animal adaptations, the water cycle and chemical pollutants. Students have the chance to use basic investigative skills and to problem-solve within various nearby habitats, namely the beach, forest, meadow and the wetlands; the pond, marsh and lagoon.

The messages from the specialized science instructors are clear: all habitats are fragile and connected, humans should observe and move through the environment responsibly, and, biodiversity is essential. The nature programme also addresses species diversity – birds, insects, snakes. winter wildlife and tracking; conservation efforts – solar energy, cycling, water filtration systems, composting; and personal development – cooperation, community, outdoor and basic survival skills, photography and storytelling.

The Island itself has more to support the school’s programmes. The airport, the farm in Centreville, the lighthouse, and the local community all provide their own lessons and instructors are able to touch on land use and city planning issues as well.

For many inner-city children, the Island school is more than just about the science curriculum. It is a first overnight experience away from parents, a first walk through wild spaces and a chance to develop social skills through cooperative learning. It is an experience complete with night hikes and a haunted lighthouse story. The peace and quiet of the island school is a welcome change from the busy urban environment of the downtown core.