Teaching children about water in the city and water in the forest: a lesson in permeability.

Recently I was invited by a dear friend who runs an outdoor education program for toddlers⏤Muddy Boot Prints⏤to come to Strathcona Community Garden to talk to her students about water in the city. Yesterday I fulfilled this invitation and had the most amazing experience teaching two of her classes, aged 2.5 to 5 years, how urbanization affects the water cycle. I used props like a big yellow sponge, moss and a sandbox to explain permeability. I collaborated with my partner to built a model 'road' with 'catch basins' and 'stormwater pipes' to show where the water goes when it rains in the city. We talked about the differences between the forest floor and city surfaces. It took a while to tease it out of them but eventually we came to an understanding that forests don’t have roads or sidewalks or buildings – things that are impermeable. While they did have difficulty saying the word impermeable, I do think they actually understood its meaning!

We had a lively discussion about the types of things you would find on the road that rain could wash into stormwater pipes and eventually into the ocean - dirt, garbage, cigarette butts, gasoline and oil from cars. When I asked who lives in the ocean – I was given a plethora of excited responses - whales, sharks, jellyfish, otters and other sea creatures even seahorses! The kids understood immediately that the dirt, garbage, and oil from the road would end up in the ocean and be very unhealthy for those creatures.

According to Belva Stone who runs Muddy Boot Prints “[at the end of the class] we found puddles that had oil in them. We began spotting cigarette butts everywhere on our walk back from Strathcona Gardens and looked for catch basins. Our view of the world began to shift a bit as we stared at the ground.” She goes on: “In the afternoon as we were returning we walked past the Fire Station … and we saw a lot of soapy bubbles on the ground going into a drain. All of the children immediately began talking about the fact that the soap will go into the ocean and how that's not great for the whales. Two fire fighters were close by and overheard us talking. [My colleague] Miss Pat was closest so she explained that we had been learning about where water goes and that it goes into the ocean. The fire-fighters then explained that the soap was okay … it was like doing a year's worth of dishes …  and then they got a little sheepish as the realization struck.”

I was so happy to hear this. One of my hopes for teaching children was that they would share these concepts with their parents. I was not expecting the children to inadvertently shame a group of fire-fighters so it tickled me to no end. As Belva put it “big lessons with little people.”

Overall it was a very successful day and I hope to teach wee ones again. I believe that they really understood what I was talking about plus it was a lot of fun. I leave you with this short video that shows our model road in action.