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Navigating for success through big boat learning

CANMORE – Navigating gigantic canoes through rocky terrain under the bemused and watchful eyes of visiting British military forces was just another day in the life of the educational coordinators for the Canadian Rockies Outdoor Learning Centre (OLC)
OLC Big Boat Canoeing
Grade 8 students from Lawrence Grassi Middle School are joined by Grade 2 students from Elizabeth Rummel School for an afternoon of Canadian Rockies Public Schools Outdoor Learning Centre big boat canoeing at Rundle Forebay in Canmore on Monday (June 17).

CANMORE – Navigating gigantic canoes through rocky terrain under the bemused and watchful eyes of visiting British military forces was just another day in the life of the educational coordinators for the Canadian Rockies Outdoor Learning Centre (OLC) and their students.

At Rundle Forebay on Monday (June 17), CRPS students had to unload, navigate and then take to the water in 30 foot long canoes, all while avoiding the simultaneous water training taking place by the soldiers.

Students learnt a little about voyageur history and a lot about water safety, all while stealthily solidifying through hands-on learning the lessons taught in the classroom.

“The big boats we feel have been an awesome opportunity to get students trained in and learn more about water safety and just paddling in general and being in this environment, and using the skills they’re learning to lead other students,” said Colleen Lee, a coordinator with the OLC.


The goal for educational coordinators at the OLC is to supplement educational objectives with the kind of lessons that get students engaged.

Monday was also a special day for Grade 2 students from Elizabeth Rummel School, as they took to the water for their first time as part of the program after being paired with Grade 8 mentors from Lawrence Grassi Middle School.

For their part, the LGMS students underwent a training day to prepare them with the skills to use all of the mandatory safety equipment for the 30-foot boats, proper paddling strokes, boating commands, and self-rescue techniques.

Working with their young charges under the supervision of OLC coordinators and teachers, the LGMS students passed on their knowledge during the approximately 45 minute canoe trip up and down the bay.

“It’s an awesome opportunity for them to start working on their communication skills and team building skills,” Lee said.

Although these skills all seem particularly specific to boating, there are positive real world outcomes that stem from outdoor activities – setting students up for success in the classroom and their lives.

“These are hugely important in my opinion, not only because I teach it, but also for myself, was one of those kids who needed a little bit of extra to give me motivation,” said Pete Prescesky, a coordinator with the OLC.

Lessons on buoyancy are intrinsic to the boating experience, and are also part of the Grade 2 provincial curriculum.

Leadership development is also an essential skill that is taught in middle school, and pairing Grade 8s with Grade 2s gives the students real world opportunities to grow.

“That’s not an opportunity we always get to do with people who aren’t within our peer group, so they got to do it with younger students which kind of empowers the Grade 8 students a little bit more, but also the Grade 2 students tend to listen to that little bit of a younger age group than they do to teachers,” he said.

Prescesky also said the lessons learnt on the water complement the in-classroom work, making the education stick.

“They won’t forget the experience, which in turn they won’t forget the lessons,” he said.

For ERS Grade 2 and 3 French immersion teacher Jenny McKenzie, the leadership skills in particular are ones she sees transferring back into the classroom.

“Kids are having to lead their younger counterparts in activities, and they have to model their behaviour if they want those kids to follow,” she said.

“Just those soft skills of having to work together, cooperating and showing good leadership, being a good sport and getting along with others are huge life skills that will transfer to any project or anything we are doing in the classroom.”

The big boat program is relatively new for CRPS. The trailer and the two canoes were purchased in April at a cost of $36,000, which was made possible through donations and grants from the Lake Louise Ski Resort, Improvement District 9 as well as the Pauw Foundation.

But doing so in a financially sustainable way has also been a goal for CRPS.

Donations make the purchase of equipment possible, while large numbers of international students taking courses at the Outdoor Learning Centre – all paying for the experience – ensures that CRPS is able to offer programs like the big boat at very low cost for locals.

“The contribution from these groups have been instrumental in being able to expand the programs, not only in the types of programs we’re offering but into different grade levels,” said CRPS superintendent Chris MacPhee. 

Six years ago outdoor learning programs began in a formal-sustainable way for high school students in the Bow Valley, largely due to demand from students and parents.

“For CRPS as a whole, I believe our families have chosen to live in this area for a reason, and some of that is because of the opportunities that nature provides,” MacPhee said.

“We want to create those opportunities for our own children first. It was the initial priority for CRPS.”

Taking lessons from James Bartram, who at the time was with the school district in Jasper, CRPS was able to begin to build an outdoor learning program that wasn’t dependent on the interest of a single teacher.

The opportunity to take over pre-existing Alberta Parks facilities in the Bow Valley Provincial Park also gave the fledgling OLC a significant leg up.

He said there are health and educational benefits to giving Bow Valley students the opportunity to spend time in nature, which dovetail with the province’s curriculum goals.

MacPhee also stressed that when students are spending time at the OLC, the lessons they are learning are directly in line with what is going on in the classroom, and teachers, principals and CRPS administration work hard to tailor the programs to ensure students aren’t missing out on educational time.

For the small school district, programs like big-boat canoeing have garnered international attention, largely because the growing interest around the world in providing children with outdoor learning experiences.

Groups from China and Finland are just two of the most recent to express interest in sending their students to the Bow Valley to experience the OLC programs.

Parent Eli Brager, who accompanied his Grade 2 daughter Evangeline as a parent volunteer on the paddle said that he thinks the program is great.

“It gives them a chance to get out on the water,” he said.