As a parent in Toronto, Georgia Marman couldn’t be more pleased with the summer camp programming for kids at Evergreen Brick Works. “The engagement with nature, the super creative and smart programming infused with environmental knowledge, advocacy, stewardship … it’s just incredible.”
She was particularly impressed with how Evergreen has encouraged her child to develop more independence and embrace some controlled risk-taking. “I love that my son lit a match this year,” she says.
While these summer camps are a huge attraction for local parents looking to keep their kids occupied and learning between school years, they are just one small part of a much larger organizational effort to foster positive, meaningful associations between children and their natural environments – whether it’s at Brick Works or in other cities across the country.
Child-centred programming developed at Evergreen is essential to the organization’s overall efforts to help cities be more responsive to community needs across a wide spectrum of environmental, social and educational concerns.
Many Torontonians might not be aware that the Brick Works facility itself is one of the many social enterprise experiments that has provided fruitful results for Evergreen. As one of the most popular family-friendly venues in Toronto, it opened in 2010 with a unique feature that has helped generate significant learning in childhood education: The Children’s Garden (pictured above).
“When we created the space, it was driven to support outdoor play and learning,” says Cam Collyer, executive director of programs at Evergreen. “The Children’s Garden is not a static environment like so many children’s play environments. It is one that changes with the interaction of the staff and the children.”
Contrary to many childcare programs that educate kids indoors, they’re encouraged at Brick Works to interact in order to learn about how things grow or how water navigates a landscape. Many are also exposed for the first time to a seed-to-table mindset through a fully functional greenhouse and outdoor oven.
In making this play space an environment that can be shaped and re-shaped by small hands with large imaginations, Collyer and the Evergreen team hope to make a lasting impact that will affect a much bigger picture.
“We wanted this place to be about the future,” he says. “The whole project here is framed around the future of our city, and we really felt strongly that you can’t speak to the future of cities if you’re not speaking to young people. They need to be part of it. It’s not just something that the adults participate in – we need children here participating in that too.”
And if the challenge of passing along this kind of intuitive, design-oriented thinking to children wasn’t enough, the team here has also tasked themselves with spreading the knowledge they gain from outdoor learning to schools, teachers and caregivers.
Collyer says Evergreen’s approach to education tapers well with some of the leading pedagogy in play-based learning – including the benefits children receive from engaging in world-making (think playing with Lego or building sandcastles).
Where some social enterprise projects build themselves up towards an ideal “finished” state, Evergreen relies on a rapid prototyping model across all of its community engagement projects – whether it’s supporting laneway housing or revitalizing the Don Valley or educating neighbourhoods on resource consumption. The result is more immediate data and agile projects that continue to respond to feedback from the people they affect.
Stephen McCullough, director of marketing and sales, helps highlight how Evergreen is influencing the national landscape in education alone.
“Currently over 4,000 schools in Canada have been impacted by what has been learned here,” he says. “There are about 16,000 elementary schools in Canada – so that means around 25 percent of them have had a degree of impact from The Children’s Garden.”
With a full slate of projects and publicly accessible resources, Collyer explains that Evergreen’s growing influence won’t affect its focus on building up communities.
“It’s not all about us,” he says.
“We have people on the ground across the country working in a design process with schools, and they’re constantly getting feedback. A lot of this is about moving that information across a larger network. So when they’re troubleshooting in Winnipeg, we’re looking at Halifax or wherever that information is needed.”
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