Learning ‘not to hurt’ nature: Pictou County Forest School offers a classroom amidst the trees

A wooden sign with the words "Pictou County Forest School" burned into it around a circle with 3 trees inside it, hangs from a white wooden post over a wooden barrel on the dirt roadside that seems to have had some recent clearing. There is what looks like a buck deer skull with antlers on the barrle and another wooden sign saying "Idle Free Zone Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions."

This article originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner in May 2023. As I’ve noted in recent posts on my website, because multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta platforms are blocking (censoring) media in Canada, this means articles published by media outlets cannot be posted or shared on any Meta platforms – not Facebook and not Instagram. This bullying by Meta is harmful to independent media, and in my view, harming democracy – instead of fact-checked articles, social media feeds are now full of meaningless memes, unending ads, and lots of opinion based on nothing but, well, opinion. For this reason, I am now posting some of my Halifax Examiner articles on my website, so they will not be blocked and can be read and shared on Meta platforms.

We can hear the children making their way through the woods well before they reach the grove of hemlock trees, this place they call “Base Camp One.” They sound happy, excited, their voices a chorus of youthful exuberance, as they head to school for another day of adventure, learning, and fun in the forest.

Welcome to the Pictou County Forest School.

In what looks like a woods setting sits a weathered grey stump sculpted into what looks like it is meant to be a bear, and the bear is holding a weathered grey wooden sign that says "Welcome to Forest School."

Much of what is created and used at the Pictou County Forest School is of natural materials, like this welcome sign. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

It’s a bitter morning in late April, but the kids, abuzz with that energy that creaky old souls (like me) can only marvel at, seem oblivious to the cold.

So does Scott Ross, who founded and runs the non-profit school, which is open even in winter months. Ross has already told me there is no bad weather, just bad clothing for the weather.

This being Tuesday, Ross says it is the day for “goslings” — children between the ages of four and seven. Wednesdays are for children eight to 11 years called “foxes,” and Thursdays are for the “wolves” — young people 12–14 years.

Today, 11 goslings are making their way to Base Camp One in the heart of the hemlock stand, where there is a fire pit, an outhouse, and a canvas tent.

A wooden framed tarp over a wooden porch in front of a large canvas tent, children dressed in winter clothes and with their colourful backpacks on the porch, while two instructors look on. To the left of the tent is a wooden outhouse. Surrounding the tent are hemlock and birch trees.

Pictou County Forest School’s “Base Camp 1.” (Credit: Joan Baxter)

Before the children gather on the porch of the tent, drop their backpacks and start on the day’s activities — tracking, fort building, animal and insect identification, and a dizzying diversity of outdoor pursuits and games — they pause and form a circle around a particular hemlock, their “gratitude tree.”

Maya Hoehne, program director and instructor at the school, says children are encouraged to look at each other, make sure their faces are visible while they are in the circle.

A forest clearing with bare brown ground, and in the middle six children in colourful ski jackets encircle and touch a tree in their midst, with two adult instructors on the right and the left of the tree, also touching it.

“Goslings” circle around a tree at “Base Camp One” at the Pictou County Forest School, with instructors Maya Hoehne (right) and Nick McCabe (left). (Credit: Joan Baxter)

The school sessions are five weeks long, Hoehne says, “So the first week of a session we talk about how grateful we are for being here, for having access to this,” Hoehne tells me. “And we often do a tobacco offering.”

Hoehne explains that Tonya Francis, an Elder from Pictou Landing First Nation, blessed the forest two years ago, and left some tobacco for the school to use.

The gratitude tree was one of the few in the hemlock grove that survived post-tropical storm Fiona in September 2022.

“We like to talk about that because we like to wonder why it remained standing,” Hoehne says. “Because there’s a lot that fell right around it. Some of the kids think that it has to do with the tobacco that got into the earth there and made it super strong. But also I think we’ve spoken to it so often it had to stay, maybe.”

Seven-year-old Poppy McCabe tells me one of the things she’s grateful for at the forest school is that the gratitude tree withstood Fiona. What she likes most about Tuesdays at the school, where her father is an instructor, is the playing, which she says is “fun” and because she likes being “close to nature.”

Smiling seven-year-old girl with long brown hair and wearing a green woolen hat and a black and mauve ski jacket, props herself between two large hemlock tree trunks.

Seven-year-old Poppy McCabe at the Pictou County Forest School. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

Asked what she’s learned about nature, Poppy answers without hesitation. “Not to hurt it.”

As for winter at the forest school, Poppy says that’s fun too; you just have to “dress warm.”

‘Magic in every season’

“What we try to relay is that we find magic in every season,” says Ross, who opened the forest school in Meadowville, Pictou County, in 2021, on 25 acres of woodland he and his wife bought next to her parents’ 150-acre farm. He says they use both properties for the school.

“In the winter we do snowshoeing and we build winter shelters,” he says. “The last couple of years we’ve done the winter Olympics and winter Canada Games where we have all kinds of fun events. There’s one where students line up and do a relay of identifying different trees in the winter. They have to go and label maple trees with flagging tape.”

Children with their backs to the camera and drssed in bulky winter clothing on a wooden plank walkway through a mature forest, a large hemlock on the left of the walkway and birch on the right, with a pale wintry sun shining through the forest canopy.

Pictou County Forest School is open in winter months. (Credit: Christine Whelan)

A large mature hemlock tree in the centre of the photo has a glass bottle with a sacred tobacco offering inside, and a small sign invites visitors to say a prayer, as two children in winter jackets and hats look on, together with a man in bluejeans, a blue hoodie and a blue hat. Light snow covers the ground and more people look on from the sides.

Children attending the Pictou County Forest School gather at a large hemlock tree where a tobacco offering has been made, and a sign on the tree invites them to offer a prayer. Scott Ross on the right and instructor Maya Hoehne on the left. (Credit: Christine Whalen)

Fiona hit hard, but the kids are okay

Post-tropical storm Fiona hit the school hard, Ross says, taking down 70% of the mature hemlock on the land, some of them 200 years old.

“At first I didn’t feel like we’d be able to continue because the magic of the woods seemed gone,” he says. “To me, the forest was lost. But it didn’t affect how the students were reacting. They continued to do the same things, explore under rocks and look in streams and pick things off the ground. They were still feeling the magic of the experience.”

A grove of mature hemlock trees, and between them, two-toned hammocks of both royal and light blue.

Pictou County Forest School has a “hammock village” where the children go to rest, relax, write in their journals, or just absorb the sounds of nature around them, doing a “sound map” of what they hear. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

Sunbeams stream through a dark grove of trees and a boy with brown hair and wearing a blue t-shirt looks towards the sun, the back of his head to the camera. He is in a blue hammock.

Gus Gunning in the “hammock village.” (Credit: Sara DeLong Gunning)

Ross, who grew up in Fredericton in neighbouring New Brunswick, is a teacher with a lifelong love of the outdoors and for sharing that passion with others, especially young people. He used to lead wilderness trips for students in northern Ontario, some 30-day long canoe trips. He’s also worked for Outward Bound in Maine. In New Brunswick, he started and then led outdoor programs for 10 summers with the non-profit Partners For Youth.

“I thrive on seeing personal growth and offering experiences that are transforming kids,” Ross says. “When you remove helicopter parenting and you remove technology, the two biggest obstacles, you can see massive amounts of growth in a day. If you have a week in the outdoors you can transform someone, especially the older students.”

A ‘pilot project’ goes big

Before starting the forest school Ross was working in the school system and running volunteer programs with students who were struggling. When he took students outdoors for a day, he says some would tell him that was the best day of school they’d ever had.

“I decided I wanted to do this full-time,” Ross recalls. “So I started a pilot project with a couple of weeks of summer camps, and did a simple little post on Facebook.”

“Programs were full within 24 hours, with 70 kids on the waiting list,” he says. “That was just beyond anything I could have imagined.”

A smiling blue-eyed man with a very light brown and grey beard, wearing a dark blue woollen cap and a dark grey zippered sweater.

Scott Ross who founded and runs the Pictou County Forest School. (Credit: Christine Whelan)

In 2021, Ross decided that instead of going back into the school system, he would start running a forest school full-time. Today the forest school has two full-time staff, including himself, five part-time, and several substitutes. This year he estimates that between 1,300 and 1,400 children will attend the school.

Ross says they offer five-week “nature immersion” programs involving one day a week for the three age groups. On Mondays and Fridays busloads of children come from public schools for day programs.

The five-week programs cost $299, and Ross explains that as a not-for-profit, that pays the bare minimum. He says they have to search out funding for new programs, such as the canoeing one they have in the works.

Still, he says, “All our programs are pay-what-you-can-afford. When you register, you can check the $299 box, or you can choose to pay more, which some people do, or you can select what you can afford. There are no questions asked. People pay what they can afford.”

The school also has a memorial fund, developed in memory of Ross’s late friend Mark MacPhail, which provides scholarships for students who wish to come to the school.

Ross says there are also programs for students from the Nova Scotia Community College, and for Nova Scotia teachers in the summers.

The alternate high school for students whose needs are not met in mainstream schools, which is run out of Trenton Middle School, sends students to the forest school, Ross adds.

“They’re just an amazing group and they get a grade 11 physical education credit for attending the forest school. It’s exciting to have high school students get high school credit for attending.”

“We really appeal to the students that both are exceptional and really do well in the school system but are just bored, the top 15%,” says Ross. “And the school also really appeals to the students that struggle in the school system for one reason or the other, and need a break through the week to get through the week.”

“We had a huge breakthrough last week with one little boy,” Ross recalls. “He was always saying he doesn’t have friends, doesn’t want friends, he hates people. And last week he started introducing one of the other kids in the program as his best friend. That was really exciting.”

Ross says the forest school also hosts recent immigrants to Canada through the YMCA “YREACH” program. He says the school has additionally started programs for doctors in Pictou County, and he applauds the fact that health care professionals in the Maritimes can now prescribe outdoor time and annual National Park passes to patients.

Rules are ‘very, very simple’

“There are two reasons we exist,” says Ross. “The main reason is to connect kids with nature so they want to protect the planet and turn around things like global warming. We need kids to genuinely love the forest and love nature and love every species.”

“We keep rules very, very simple. We don’t have many rules at all. We have respect and kindness, but if students aren’t engaged in something we’re doing, and they have something else in mind, we generally support what they want to do. We let them pursue their passions out here.”

Another reason for the school, according to Ross, is “to give kids confidence and make them feel good about themselves, which all our activities are designed to do. We’ve got a very, very clear mission.”

It’s one that seems to work with the students.

‘You don’t get bored’

Gus Gunning, 13 years old, has been a regular at the forest school since it opened in 2021, attending three or four five-week sessions a year, together with several of his friends.

I meet with Gus and his mother, Sara DeLong Gunning, on the Pictou waterfront on a blustery Sunday afternoon to find out more about their experience with the school.

Boy with brown hair wearing a grey hoodie cuddles a copper-coloured poodle in his arms while a woman in a blue jacket and maroon woollen cap smiles at the dog, cuddling its face with her right hand.

Gus Gunning and Sara DeLong Gunning with their poodle Copper on the Pictou waterfront. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

Gus tells me he has picked up many skills, from tying knots to useful survival skills such as putting up tarps as shelters even in the winter and lighting a fire without matches. He also likes the tracking of animals, and says they’ve seen coyotes, foxes, bunnies, squirrels, and deer.

Among other things, he’s learned to prepare pizza, pancakes, vegetables, and potatoes in the great outdoors. He says when it is very cold in winter, the students can find warmth inside the tent at Base Camp One, where there is a woodstove.

The interior of a wooden-framed white tent with wooden plants on the floor, a woodstove with a white fence around it, a red and orange mat in front with geometric patterns, and a low table covered with a cloth of black, pink, blue, green and yellow stripes. In a far corner, white plastic buckets on a shelf and three stacked dark green garden chairs.

The interior of the Base Camp One tent at the Pictou County Forest School. (Credit: Joan Baxter)

“But mostly we’re just outside,” Gus tells me. “There is so much stuff to do that you don’t get bored.”

A boy wearing black snowpants and a black ski jackey and a black woollen cap with white and blue stripes sits on a muddy snowball in a muddy stream with his feet in the stream water, and there is snow on the ground on the edge of the stream, with some pine and fir trees in the background.

Gus Gunning enjoying the winter at the Pictou County Forest School. (Credit: Maya Hoehne)

‘The world has been a scary place’

Gus’ mother, Sara DeLong Gunning, says after his days in the forest school he “comes home animated and talking about his day, more so than if he’s in the [regular] school.”

“He’s just had a great outside day, and fresh-air activity, fun with his friends,” says DeLong Gunning, who is a primary teacher in Pictou.

“I think especially in the last couple of years the world has been a scary place and school has been stressful for kids of all ages,” she says. “I also think that the sitting in a classroom is not for everybody. And it’s hard on kids, and for these kids getting outside and being active and getting physical activity, it’s good for their mental health, their physical health. They’re learning about the world around them. And I find it really exciting and really fortunate.”

DeLong Gunning says she’s aware of some suggestions that the Pictou County Forest School is “a bit elitist” because it “costs money.”

“But they try really, really hard to make it inclusive,” she says. “There’s a subsidy to anyone that can’t afford it.” She also says if children come without their own lunches, Ross has food at the school, and the children often make meals as part of the program.

“I took my class there last week,” says Delong Gunning. “There are ways to get everybody out there. And we went last year. Primary and grade four went together, and they’re so amazing. They have everything organized. You just get off the school bus and they kind of take over.”

A smiling woman with glasses, her hands in the pockets of a blue ski jacket with horizontal yellow and turquoise stripes, stands in front of a large tree with a wooden porch behind her, where two children in colourful winter garb are talking to a woman wearing a light blue kerchief and a brown sweater.

Christine Whalen, mother of 3 little kids, a photographer and an enthusiastic outdoor explorer with a degree in Environmental Science, is an instructor at the Pictou County Forest School. (Joan Baxter)

“The teachers are knowledgeable and experienced and love what they do. I think that’s my dream retirement job, to go out there and spend some time.”

There’s no lining up and waiting in the forest

Tara Proudfoot’s seven-year-old son, Evan, is another regular at the school. “My little guy has been going since January last year,” she says in a phone interview. “I sign him up for everything, and he goes every Tuesday.”

Proudfoot’s son finds regular school difficult.

A smiling small boy wearing black overalls and a long-sleeved royal blue shirt kneels on the right side of a fireplace where orange flames lick at a back grate propped on the brown wheel cap that serves as the fireplace.

Evan Proudfoot enjoying the fireplace at the Pictou Country Forest School on a winter day with snow on the ground. (Credit: Tara Proudfoot)

“We’re trying to count how many times they line up in a day, and how long they have to stay still, and stand in line and wait,” Proudfoot tells me. “This was always very difficult for him. At the forest school he gets to be outdoors all day, and I see a huge difference in him just being able to entertain himself, not having to have somebody always playing with him on a toy or a device.”

“He’s outside right now, and he’s playing with sticks. He can entertain himself for hours,” Proudfoot tells me.

She says she is impressed that he knows all about fire safety, can start fires by himself, chop up vegetables and flip pancakes, things she can’t imagine trying to get a seven-year-old to do at home. Proudfoot thinks the forest school makes her son “pretty proud of himself,” and she’ll keep sending him as long as he wants to go.

A forest school for all counties?

The Pictou County Forest School is not the first one in Nova Scotia. There are a few others in the province, Ross says.

But the demand for such schools seems to be huge and he would like to see many more of them, so that more children can be accommodated and also to reduce driving distances for parents, with some accessible by public transit.

Ross says he’s now spoken to nine different groups of people who want to start forest schools in Nova Scotia, and he thinks there may soon be schools starting up in Truro and another in Antigonish.

“A big part of my mission is supporting people who want to start schools,” he says. “I want to free up my time to help support them because I think there’s a tonne of interest and I think people are nervous about it, mostly about the business or not-for-profit side of running your own thing and being in charge. I want to help people get over that hump.”

So I really would like to — I’m not quite ready for it yet — but I could see that evolving into more or less my full-time job is working with economic development and helping start facilities like ours and other communities because it’s not that complicated. What we do is really simple, and that’s why I’m amazed at how much interest there is. We allow kids to do what they naturally love to do and spend time outside and ask questions and be curious.

Meanwhile, Ross also has big plans for the Pictou County Forest School. “My dream is to build a permanent environmental education centre for Eastern Canada,” he says. For that, he admits, the money they bring in from tuition is not going to cut it, so they will need to fundraise and look for grants.

Ross tells me he is an incorrigible optimist, even when he looks at the enormous problems facing the world, such as ecological degradation and collapse, and the climate crisis. This is what he says, his positive determination putting old creaky souls (like me) to shame:

I just can only see the positive and I can only feel the positive. That’s what makes me get up in the morning, just seeing the impact of what we’re having on those we’re working with. And I can just see this growing in other places. They are very complex issues that our planet faces. There are many facets to it, but I think we’re a big part of the solution … I see all kinds of reasons, reasons for optimism. If we get enough students caring about our planet and making it a priority, I think we’re part of the solution.


One Comment, RSS

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *