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Sundridge Centennial has new outdoor classroom

'The meaning and intention behind the painting is to honour nature, to foster a caring culture between all people, and to further our path toward Truth and Reconciliation while doing so'

In education, the environment is often regarded as the “third teacher” after parents and educators.

Throughout Near North District School Board (NNDSB), educators strive to include the environment in their lessons whenever they can. Now, after four years and the efforts of the entire community, Sundridge Centennial Public School finally has a classroom for its third teacher.

Sundridge Centennial’s new outdoor classroom was unveiled to a large gathering of students, parents and community members at a ceremony recently.

Rodney Stanger of Timiskaming First Nation opened the ceremony by demonstrating Indigenous culture and encouraging students to continue connecting with nature. Stanger sang a traditional song to honour the work completed and to encourage the continued development of understanding of the world around us through varied perspectives. 

“This classroom will be used by all age groups and our community partners as a safe space to enjoy the environment around us,” Principal Jill Cooper said. “All subject matter can be taught in this space from mathematics and science to literacy. We hope to add “wonder wagons” full of discovery tools, microscopes, magnifying glasses, bug jars and more.”  

Teachers Candy St. Onge and Cathy Russell founded the project five years ago and secured an initial grant from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. The project encountered considerable challenges and delays throughout the pandemic but was propelled forward thanks to the dedication of staff.  

“Principal Cooper has been an excellent advocate and supporter of the outdoor classroom initiative. Jill has brought the project up at every staff meeting and parent council meeting to gather donations and volunteers,” Russell said. “She pushed through any challenges we faced with a positive attitude and even delivered construction materials in her own horse trailer to help keep our costs down.”

Cooper connected the project leads with NNDSB experts, including Indigenous education and experiential learning leads to ensure the project would be meaningful and create on-going learning opportunities for students, staff and community members.

Through the involvement of community partners and staff, the project evolved from a simple pole structure with sailcloth to protect students from the elements to a more permanent structure with trusses and a shingled roof.

One of the most prominent features of the outdoor classroom is the elaborately painted ceiling created by students and teacher Christine Charette who has experience working as a Métis artist in community art projects.

“The meaning and intention behind the painting is to honour nature, to foster a caring culture between all people, and to further our path toward Truth and Reconciliation while doing so,” Cooper said. “Because it is an outdoor classroom, it was a natural fit for students to have meaningful discussions around caring for the natural world and how we are all connected to it.” 

The painting is anchored in a blue background, representing water. “Water is life” is a major theme. The painting includes the Seven Grandfather Teachings, which are Anishinaabe guiding principles passed down from generation to generation to lead people in living a good life in peace and without conflict.  

The seven teachings of truth, love, respect, wisdom, courage, humility and bravery are represented in the painting by seven animals, painted in the Eastern Woodland style, and are the central focus of the ceiling. Around the animals, there are 300 fish swimming around in schools.  

“Each student and teacher from Sundridge Centennial Public School painted their own fish, using the Métis dot art style. The students chose colours to represent someone special in their lives or a special place in nature so that each fish is symbolic of what they love,” Cooper said. “This means that the entire painting is not only a snapshot of traditional teachings, but also filled with individual stories that will linger in the memory of the project and will continue to bring layers of meaning to those learning in the outdoor classroom.”   

The Sundridge Centennial Public School outdoor classroom was made possible through the support of the following community partners: Custom Home Designs; Phoenix Building Components; McLaren Bros. Construction; North Bay Home Depot; Wilson Transportation; Almaguin Highlands Community Living; Sundridge Lions Club; South River Planing Mill; EBL Groundworks; Retired Teachers of Ontario; Sundridge Home Hardware; Jeremy Bean Designs; Indigenous Education Partnership; Arborist Alliance; the Village of Sundridge; NNDSB experiential learning department and Almaguin Highlands Secondary School.