Outdoor after school program encourages Ladysmith area youth to learn with nature

Youth in the Outdoor Explorers program investigate the edge of Patti Gisbourne’s duck pond. (Sense of Place photo)Youth in the Outdoor Explorers program investigate the edge of Patti Gisbourne’s duck pond. (Sense of Place photo)
Kids are encouraged to use their imagination and work collaboratively during play by using forest debris to make play spaces. (Sense of Place photo)Kids are encouraged to use their imagination and work collaboratively during play by using forest debris to make play spaces. (Sense of Place photo)
Outdoor Explorers walk along a fallen tree. (Sense of Place photo)Outdoor Explorers walk along a fallen tree. (Sense of Place photo)

If you drive down Cedar Road, just a little past École North Oyster, you’ll see a big white tent. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see Patti Gisborne walking around her property with the youths enrolled in her Outdoor Explorers program.

The Outdoor Explorers program is an after-school extracurricular program where students can safely explore nature on Gisborne’s 23-acre property. The property is teeming with wildlife, native plant species, fruit-bearing trees, a duck pond, a forest with walking paths, and is bordered by a riparian area — giving youth plenty of opportunity to interact with the natural world.

Gisborne is a licensed childcare provider and executive director of Sense of Place Youth Project, a before-school childcare provider across from École North Oyster. She has been providing childcare for 15 years and has 16 years of experience as a youth outdoor educator through the Beavers, Cubs and Scouts in Ladysmith. She always dreamed of running her own outdoor education program and when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020, Gisborne saw it as the perfect opportunity to begin her program.

“I’m just a mom with a dream,” she said. “There were a lot of families who weren’t cool with having their kids in a building.”

Gisborne used temporary emergency funding from the government to launch the program. She utilized government funding to purchase the large tent classroom, supplies for the program and brought on full-time staff at $25 an hour.

“I needed my staff to be safe. Some of them worked two jobs — they needed to not work two jobs and they needed to survive.”

The program opened on July 1, 2020, and has been operating ever since. Youth of all ages can participate in the program. There is a program for young children aged three to five and a separate program for school-aged kids from five to 12. On Wednesdays, a group of teenagers, who are primarily youth in foster care, uses the space.

“We do the exact same programming with the bigs — in a developmentally appropriate way — as we do with our littles,” Gisborne said. “It’s amazing how nature will take care of all of us. I’ve actually had many parents ask if we’ll start doing adult programs too.”

Every day starts by checking in with the youth — asking them how their day went and what they want to learn about. From there, the group heads out into the fields and forests of Gisborne’s property to discover what might be out there. She encourages the youth to ask questions about what they find and provides them with field guides and other resources to get to the bottom of the natural mysteries they uncover.

The Gisborne family has a long history of supporting youth education in the area. The property has been in the Gisborne family for over 100 years. Patti’s husband, Dale Gisborne’s ancestors donated the land for both École North Oyster and the community centre across the street where Sense of Place’s before-school programming operates.

“I’m certain my ancestors would love what we’re doing today on the land — educating kids and offering something to the community,” Dale said.

Someone else who certainly appreciates what the Gisbornes are doing is École North Oyster principal, John Cunnian. Cunnian arrived at École North Oyster two years ago and met Patti shortly after that.

“She’s the source of knowledge for this little area,” Cunnian said. “It’s not just the community centre piece or the childcare, she’s a really important neighbour and someone we rely on pretty heavily.”

Cunnian has worked as the principal of SD68’s international school program and as the vice principal of Nanaimo District Secondary School. Throughout his career as an educator, he has never met anybody like Patti Gisborne.

“She knows the school, she’s had kids go through the school. She knows a lot of the kids at the school through Sense of Place and knew right away how to support them,” he said. “You don’t see this everywhere. People here go out of their way to make sure the school is successful and our kids are successful.”

“Students feel really comfortable here. A big part of that is the support and collaboration with the community at large.”