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Virtual Classrooms, The Evergreen Way

Evergreen's tips to incorporate nature into virtual education

Presentation screen of a word cloud generated by students. It reads 'What are Queen Alexandra MS students grateful for? Shelter, end of school day, friends.

Published on February 26, 2021

Over the past decade, Evergreen has cultivated a reputation for offering some of the most engaging and meaningful education programs in Toronto, Ontario. From constructing local animal inspired habitats from natural materials to collecting and identifying 400-million-year-old fossils, we aim to inspire wonder, curiosity and empathy towards nature in our communities.

A group of students with backpacks walking on the boardwalk over a lily pad pond and willow trees.
A school group exploring the ponds around Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto.

Luckily for us, we work somewhere that couldn’t make it easier. Right by a formerly abandoned 120-foot-deep quarry, Evergreen Brick Works and the surrounding landscape has become a home to beavers, coyotes, foxes, herons and so much more — right in the city. It is a regular occurrence for kids in our programs to see beavers chewing on bark and red-tailed hawks on the hunt.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were met with a new challenge: how could we re-create the magic of this place and the experiential nature of our in-person programming, virtually?

Our highly creative team of educators, artists and lifelong learners hit the ground running. After months of research, refining and repeating “you’re on mute”, our team launched Virtually Outdoors, a suite of live, curriculum-connected virtual field trips infused with the spirit and values of our in-person programming.

How did they do it? How do you create a virtual classroom, the Evergreen way? We asked our team to share their favourite tips and tricks they learned along the way.

1) You can still go outside!

Just because we’re in the virtual classroom doesn’t mean we can’t explore nature where each of us are. Incorporating activities such as nature bingo & plotting critical ecological features in our school yard via mapping software (see Grade 7-8 - Nature Mapping), getting outdoors is still a critical part of our program that will leave children seeing their school yard in new ways.

Screenshot of students and educators in Evergreen's Virtually Outdoors program, holding up their bingo cards.
Nature Bingo is a great tool to help students look closely at the nature in their neighbourhood.

2) Engage the body & the senses

Virtual learning doesn’t have to be in lecture format. With increased screen time for us all, it’s more important than ever to get in touch with the present through our bodies. With activities like local animal inspired yoga, incorporating stretching and breathing breaks, we look for every opportunity to engage the senses.

3) Virtual backgrounds

Sometimes with restrictions comes new possibilities. With virtual backgrounds we can interact with places we could never access in reality! Thanks to these, our educators can take classes on excursions to the inside of a decaying log or riding on a robin’s wing. Download this photo of Evergreen Brick Works and see what it's like to fly over the valley!

Local is important: though it might be tempting to run with a herd of zebras, prioritizing your local environment such as a white pine forest or lively wetland fosters a relationship between children and their communities.

4) Storytelling

Virtual classrooms are an excellent medium for storytelling and using storytelling techniques such as voices, levels, costumes and interaction translate well to the virtual realm. Getting close to the screen, disappearing for a moment and using props & costumes can translate particularly well. Recently, we used a cribbage board as a wise old oak tree and it translated surprisingly well!

Screenshot of Evergreen's Virtually Outdoors program with students and educators. One educator is wearing a handmade costume made to look like a tree.
Costumes bring an extra layer of fun to storytelling.

5) Participation, participation, participation

There are so many ways for participants to get involved in virtual workshops. From polls to word clouds, asking questions to quizzes, interaction encourages engagement and reinforces learning. One of our favourite activities is asking children to make local animal masks and tails with classroom materials and having them share their creations.

6) Work with your partners

In transitioning from in person to virtual programming, having our partners on board was crucial. We couldn’t offer financially accessible virtual programs without them! Not only can eligible schools apply for a completely free Virtually Outdoors programs, but thanks to our corporate partners and donors, all schools automatically qualify for a partially subsidized program at less than half of the actual cost.

Interested in booking a virtual field trip for your school or classroom? Check out Virtually Outdoors! We can’t wait to see you on the (virtual) trails.

Virtually Outdoors is made possible through the generous support of organizations like the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Bank of America, HSBC Bank Canada, and the Tippet Foundation, and individual donors like Gary Slaight and Shabin and Nadir Mohamed.