'Educational beacon'

Apr 26th, 2021

Susan White

'Educational beacon'

Two Memorial University alumni are getting a major funding boost that has the potential to impact education and child care across Canada.

Cloudberry Forest School, founded by Nora Trask (B.Mus., B.Mus.Ed.’04, MBA-SEE’20) and Laura Molyneux (BA’12), has received $450,000 from the Lawson Foundation, a Canadian organization that invests in ideas, people and organizations that contribute to the healthy development of children and youth.

The three-year funding is in partnership with the O’Brien Farm Foundation in St. John’s and designates Cloudberry as a living laboratory through which observers will explore and inform the potential for forest and nature schools to be licensed in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“This is something that we’ve been working really hard for personally and professionally for a very long time,” said Ms. Trask. “To have it recognized at not only the provincial level but at the national level is critical for us to normalize outdoor education.”

“This is always what we hoped Cloudberry could be,” added Ms. Molyneux. “A space to model, a space to teach – not just the children but to teach educators [and] to inform policy. It’s really exciting that it’s a possibility now.”

Bolstering outdoor play

Cloudberry is one of eight demonstration projects being funded by the Lawson Foundation in the second phase of its Outdoor Play Strategy. A total of $4.95 million is being invested in projects across Canada.

“The Outdoor Play Strategy is designed to impact systems change to support increased outdoor play capacity in early learning and child care,” said Christine Alden, the foundation’s program director. “The Cloudberry project will demonstrate the policy considerations necessary to license an outdoor-based model of licensed child care. We expect the learning will also inform policy in other jurisdictions in Canada.”

Cloudberry was founded in 2014 after Ms. Trask and Ms. Molyneux undertook training to become certified outdoor educators through the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.

The original vision was to provide pre-school programming that would expose children to nature and outdoor play. They’ve since expanded to offer non-credit and enrichment programming for children and youths ages two to 14.

Road map to licensing

Over the next three years, Cloudberry will be the focus of a pilot project that will include research and evaluation and transform the school into a demonstration and training centre.

The aim is to explore how forest schools could become licensed within Newfoundland and Labrador’s education and child care systems, and provide a road map for licensing forest schools across Canada.

The project evaluation is being led by retired professor David Philpott of the Faculty of Education. “The funding is opening up a research avenue for Cloudberry, which has always been something I’ve wanted to tackle,” said Ms. Molyneux.

Part of the reason the alumnae say they are so interested in researching a path to legislation is that they believe in quality child care, and they believe that legislation that recognizes forest schools as a beneficial and legitimate form of education is the way to get it.

“I am most excited about that, just seeing the people that are going to be looking in and seeing the beacon that Cloudberry is going to become,” said Ms. Trask, adding the funding is going to put Cloudberry on a national stage.

Ms. Trask says the project application was successful thanks in part to her experience in Memorial’s master of business administration in social enterprise and entrepreneurship (MBA-SEE) program.

“It was the project management skills and the confidence that I learned from the MBA-SEE that made that part of the process successful for us.”

‘Unique and intrepid ideas’

Cloudberry is located on the grounds of O’Brien Farm in St. John’s, which will administer the funds.

Aaron Rodgers, farm manager, says the partnership offers insight into potential connections between education and agriculture.

“Agriculture and early childhood development have become increasingly separated from each other, and the general public, over the last 70 years or so,” he said. “I think this project is a real opportunity to break down some of these barriers and show people that these interactions are good for everyone.”

Mr. Rodgers says that he is excited that the O’Brien Farm funding will help the them achieve their long-term goals of facilitating these unique and intrepid ideas.

“I think it says a lot about the potential of the project that a big foundation was willing to invest so much money into a partnership between two relatively small entities in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Ms. Trask and Ms. Molyneux are hopeful that the project will be successful and forest schools will become licensed nation-wide.

“Ultimately, that’s where we want to be and what we want to be doing,” said Ms. Trask. “And to be able to show off what we know and be part of this kind of research, it’s astounding to me and it feels so right.”