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 “SaskOutdoors, Times Gone By…” by Kyle Lichtewald (May, 2009)

40 years ago a group of passionate educators came together to create an organization that we have come to know as the Saskatchewan Outdoor & Environmental Education Association (SaskOutdoors). In the beginning outdoor education was emphasized and the environmental awareness aspect had not yet been realized; the group was then known as S.O.E.A. - Saskatchewan Outdoor Education Association.

Our pioneers came together to promote the importance of learning in and about our natural world within Saskatchewan education systems. As one of the original members, Jack Mackenzie, put it in a recent interview, “The goal was to blow fresh air into the school system”. From the beginning, an interdisciplinary approach was utilized. Early leaders came together from many subject areas including Science, Physical Education, Arts Education, Social Studies, Math and History; as well as from various sectors including youth agencies, Saskatchewan universities, and various School Boards. It was recognized that much of curricular content could be applied and taught in outdoor environments.

Through the early years S.O.E.A. offered a number of conferences, workshops and then in 1973 the first issue of our newsletter, Envisage, was published. In 1974, S.O.E.A. assisted the Ministry of Education with preparing and publishing ‘Out to Learn: Guidelines and Standards Manual for Outdoor Environmental Education’. This was a provincial education document that was designed to assist teachers in developing safe and well-organized outdoor education programs. Out to Learn was more recently revised and republished in collaboration with Saskatchewan Education in 1991. These publishing efforts and five successful conferences led to the broadening of S.O.E.A.’s reputation as a model association that was quickly becoming recognized by educators across Canada. In 1975 S.O.E.A. hosted Canada’s second National Outdoor Education Conference "Challenge for Education - Hope for Environment”. This renowned event was held during four warm autumn days and hosted at Fort San near Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan. This conference brought over 400 people together to work towards our common goal of infusing effective outdoor education practices. The keynote speaker was the sought after Dr. Julian Smith, a professor from Michigan State University who had mentored many Canadians interested in the area of outdoor education. Dr. Smith had long seen outdoor education as a means for curriculum enrichment. In his work he noted that our natural environment provides a learning climate which allows students direct and authentic experiences¹.

Environmental concerns began to enter Saskatchewan’s collective consciousness in the late 70’s and in 1978 the association’s name was changed to Saskatchewan Outdoor & Environmental Education Association under Chairman Barry Mitschke’s direction. The name change, as well as a revamped mission and vision, came as a result of shifting societal concerns. Another milestone at this time was the awarding of the first Melanson award to Jack McKenzie for his long term commitment to outdoor and environmental education in Saskatchewan. Since then, 19 other notable Saskatchewan educators have received this award for innovative teaching techniques, demonstrating knowledge of natural environments and taking a holistic approach to outdoor education. To these recognized individuals we gratefully pass on a heartfelt thanks for their continued efforts.  In 2014, a decision was made to use the operational name SaskOutdoors to simplify correspondence.

Also of note in the 1970s was the successful application for Saskatchewan Lotteries funds under the Recreation division. Thanks to these annual grants, SaskOutdoors has been able to accomplish much more and we would like to recognize Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund as our major funder.

Throughout the 1980’s SaskOutdoors volunteers continued to host numerous conferences and workshops. During this time, members visited destinations of Candle Lake, Cypress Hills, Saskatoon, Lumsden, Waskesiu, Moose Jaw, Fort Qu’appelle and Moose Mountain Provincial Park. Numerous articles and resources continued to be shared through the Envisage newsletter. Long time SaskOutdoors chairperson and Melanson Award recipient, Barry Mitschke, wrote “The Status of Formal and Informal Outdoor/Environmental Education in Saskatchewan: 1986 A SaskOutdoors Research paper”. This involved a province wide survey of educators on the status of Outdoor and Environmental Education. In addition, SaskOutdoors worked with Saskatchewan Parks and Recreation to launch the still popular Project Wild program. It was and is common for SaskOutdoors to send members to national and international conferences yearly. A highlight from 1987 involved six SaskOutdoors delegates attending the NAAEE (North American Association of Environmental Education) conference in Quebec City to learn from and collaborate with leaders in the field.

Over the years, SaskOutdoors collected membership dues and received minor grants for initiatives in addition to the support funding from Saskatchewan Lotteries, and continued to rely heavily on the work done by strong collective efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers. In 1994 SaskOutdoors developed a number of new programs to involve increasing numbers of our members and to attract new members as well as to support educators, youth and communities. The two new programs were “Environmental Action Projects” and “Outdoor Education Experience” support. This support helped teachers and students get outside, promote active healthy lifestyles, appreciate the natural environment, challenge participants’ thinking and encourage long-term changes in behaviour. Many Saskatchewan students and teachers have benefited from these two programs over the years.

By 1995, SaskOutdoors’ mission had shifted from being focused on outdoor learning and pursuit, towards a much stronger emphasis on environmental concerns. SaskOutdoors’ eligibility as a recreation association had come under question from the SPRA funder and work was undertaken to review SaskOutdoors’ mission and goals. Through this process SaskOutdoors refocused on the importance of becoming active within the environment and getting outside again. It was at this time that SaskOutdoors introduced the first Ecotour to the newly established Grasslands National Park, in south-west Saskatchewan. These tours continue to attract many interested participants and help folks gain awareness of our different ecoregions. Through these trips, many gained an appreciation for the importance of outdoor education and are inspired to bring their students and families to the areas visited. This year SaskOutdoors is hosting its 15th Ecotour to the Boreal Learning Centre in Ness Creek, Saskatchewan.

We have again reviewed our strategic planning in recent years and re-configured our structure to include collaborative working groups. Our mission and goals have been revamped to clarify our current vision and lead us onward towards our quest for interdisciplinary, progressive education within our province. We strive to assist in the creation, coordination and delivery of integrated high quality outdoor and environmental education programs. Saskatchewan students deserve an education that takes them outside and offers first hand experiences. SaskOutdoors labours to support Saskatchewan educators in the development of appropriate and responsible endeavours to meet these needs of our students. Going forward, we are moving to offer certification programs in the areas of outdoor and environmental education, including bringing a new program to Saskatchewan, “Flying Wild”. It is our hope that through these programs Saskatchewan educators will be empowered to explore new techniques, develop local programs, and assist their colleagues in the development of projects and programs.

As we look back and celebrate our past at this time, our future still plays prominently. Our board understands that we need to continue to push ourselves beyond the classroom walls, to build connections & partnerships, support each other, and to come together in a community of activism in pursuit of sustainability goals. We will be able to sustain ourselves and our efforts through our connections with one another.

¹ SchoolYard Enhanced Learning: Using the Outdoors as an Instructional Tool, K-8. By Herbert Broda 2007