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Building kids’ connections – and confidence – through outdoor play

CANADA, July 8 - A nearby beach where you always swam.

That favourite tree you used to climb.

The woods you explored behind your childhood home.

“Most people can remember someplace in nature that felt special to them,” says Hannah Gehrels, project coordinator for Wild Child PEI. 

“They have memories of that place that stick with them as an adult.”

And they often revisit those memories or those happy places as adults because they know it benefits their mental well-being, Gehrels says.

“Part of my hope with Wild Child is giving kids those experiences that they can return to – for their own mental well-being and resilience.”

Wild Child Forest School is a recreational program designed to connect children with nature through play, such as building forts, learning about plants and animals, and observing the changing seasons. 

Rain or shine. Heat or cold. The Wild Child program takes place entirely outdoors, allowing young Islanders to develop deep connections to nature and the environment. Participants range in age from three to 14 years old.

“People might think we’re just playing outside,” Gehrels says. “But it’s a lot of social learning, too.”

As well as teachings about nature, children also learn how to resolve conflict, solve problems, and negotiate with each other in a respectful manner. 

“The kids don’t even realize the amount of stuff they’re learning.”

Recently the organization received a grant from the PEI Alliance for Mental Well-Being, a government-supported organization that works to strengthen and support initiatives that build individual, family, and community resilience.

The grant will provide funding for the Wild Child program for the next three years.

“I cried when I got the news,” says Gehrels, who took advantage of the one-on-one coaching offered to applicants by the Alliance, making the grant application process more accessible.

They say the funding means their organization can continue doing its important work with and for the children in Wild Child – regardless of their circumstances.

“We really want this program to be accessible to those who need it most,” Gehrels says.

BIPOC families, 2SLGBTQ kids, low-income families, as well as neurodivergent children, kids with autism, ADHD or any kind of physical disability are all supported.

“I think it's really important for kids to have a place where they feel like they can belong and be themselves.”

Gehrels says giving children the opportunity to be outdoors – away from their parents, in a safe and supportive environment – helps develop their independence and confidence.

It also helps them embrace challenges and advance their resiliency – a primary goal of the PEI Alliance for Mental Well-Being.

“I’ve heard from a lot of caregivers and parents that they’ve noticed their kids have an increased self-esteem and confidence – because kids try a lot of new things when they come to the woods.”

Having the space and support to play in – and connect with – nature is something every child should have, says Gehrels.

And developing relationships with others is an important life skill for children, too, they say – including the relationship they have with themselves. 

“Being outside really is important for many kids in terms of mental well-being. Because when you're outside, you're more free to be yourself.”

For more information on Wild Child Forest School and other programs, visit: Wild Child PEI