Learning in the wild

Posted on June 21 2019, by Gladys Breckenridge

Photo courtesy of Darren Lentz.

Darren Lentz believes there’s no better classroom than the great outdoors.

The 48-year-old elementary school principal has built a career on his outdoor education expertise and said his love for the land stemmed from an upbringing that involved frequent adventures out in the bush.

“I was either fishing or hunting or trapping,” he said. “It all began in the ‘Highlands of Madawaska [Ontario].”

In recent years, Lentz received a national award as one of Canada’s Outstanding Principals. The honour is presented to school administrators across the country for demonstrating innovation, leadership and creative solutions in their communities.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for that work… when I talk to people about educating young people and the outdoors, it’s about building that relationship with the land, getting out and learning — learning from experience from the bush, from nature, from the animals, from the time spent whatever you’re doing in the outdoors,” he said. “Anytime I can share that knowledge, I enjoy that opportunity.”

Lentz is a principal at Kingsway Park Public School in Thunder Bay, Ontario - a city of just over 100,000 people on the north shore of Lake Superior, an hour from the Minnesota border. He has been the brains behind the school's outdoor education academy for students in grades seven and eight.

The program, launched in 2017, provides students with hands on experience to learn skills in various outdoor activities including canoeing, dog sledding, geocaching, ethnobotany, archery, hunting, trapping and snowshoeing.

Photo courtesy of Darren Lentz.

Students also have the chance to build their own canoes and snowshoes. A number of program-constructed canoes have been featured in museums and post-secondary institutions across Canada.

“It sticks with them for a long time… and it sticks with me too,” Lentz said of the outdoor training. “The experiences that these kids walk away with and when I see them again, they remember. It was their time on the land when we built something or went on a canoe trip. It’s those times that they remember most and they learn from them.”

Before he became a principal, Lentz’s earlier years were spent teaching in Eabametoong First Nation and Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario.

And while he’s been an educator for 25 years, Lentz said it was his employment up north where he was able to gain a lot of the knowledge he uses in his outdoor curriculum today.

“The land and the people have shaped me-- I always say that,” he said. “It’s been a good journey and it’s taken me many places.”

Ryan Roy, a teacher at Kingsway who has worked with Lentz for the past five years and helped implement the outdoor academy curriculum said his superior’s love of the outdoors and willingness to let students learn outside a traditional classroom has transformed the school in more ways than one.

“What he has brought to the table is something new and something pretty important for kids to have that connection with the land because it’s in our DNA,” Roy said.  “And he’s the perfect guy to introduce it to the kids because he lives it. He’s hunting, he’s trapping, he’s canoeing… and he brings that passion to the classroom and throughout the rest of our school.”

Roy added that knows Lentz has had a positive impact on kids at Kingsway and beyond, giving them the chance to take part in activities they might not otherwise try.

“He always has a way of keeping the kids at the forefront and giving them these opportunities,”  “He’s touched so many people along his journey… I’ve never heard a bad thing about him.”

Christina Dean a former student of Kingsway who was enrolled in the program its first year said she feels grateful that she was able to take advantage of the outdoor academy and all that it had to offer.

“Not every 14-year-old can say they’ve had these certifications,” she said. “It was a great experience.”

Dean, now 16 years old, said she looks back on the training she received and especially appreciates it in the age of social media and smart phone dependency.

“It…really shows you what our world is, what it’s made of. You see the world we are living in without seeing it over your smartphone or your computer,” she said.

And Lentz, who said he believes his work as an educator is not yet finished, hopes that when he does make his exit, he will leave a legacy that will be worth remembering.

Photo Courtesy of Darren Lentz.

“I want people to know how important the land is to us and how we need to respect the land, but also how we need to be on the land and learn from the land,” he said. “Educating young people to love the outdoors is key in keeping our planet alive because people that have a relationship with something tend to not want to hurt it.”


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