Forest school expands understanding of the outdoors

by Jason Bain | May 19, 2023
Dogwood Forest classroom

Brad and Michelle Graves credit their own rich outdoor experiences for motivating them to open a forest school where connecting with nature is fundamental.

The young couple, former public-school teachers with environmental backgrounds, co-founded Dogwood Forest, a 57-acre private education park with mixed forests, creeks, and ponds southwest of Port Perry.

Outdoor roots

The parents of two young children easily recall memories that heavily influenced what they do today. That includes being immersed in the northern Ontario lifestyle when the Graves went to school in North Bay.

Lifelong angler Brad understands, for example, how fishing has provided him an important opportunity to spend time with his family — especially his father.

“Through this shared passion we were able to build a strong connection that has given many memories together,” he wrote via email. “I think this is at the core of our programs — mentorship and nature connection.”

Dogwood began in 2005 as Crossley Aquatics, which offered swimming lessons and summer day camp programs before Brad and Michelle researched the outdoor education delivery movement and branched out in 2017.

What began as one class of six kids once a week has evolved into weekly and specialty drop-in programs for children and youth ages five to 14, plus family/parent, adult, group, PA day, and summer programs.

“We began Dogwood Forest … with the dream of being able to connect children with the outdoors, recognizing the benefits we experienced personally as well as what we observed through the summer camp,” Brad wrote.

Educators key

The Graves praised the school’s team of facilitators for their belief in the vision that makes everything possible; the staff’s unique backgrounds and experiences makes mentorship at the school rich and welcoming.

Dogwood Forest folks
Brad and Michelle Graves with their dog, Forest.

Kids learn survival skills such as bushcraft, fire and shelter building, clean water collection, forest navigation, and wildlife tracking, said outdoor educator Aidan Doak, a longtime angler and hunter with an environmental management degree.

Lessons align with the seasons, so much time is spent talking about what animals in the forest, sky, and water are doing at each interval and why.

“I truly believe … we are providing the groundwork for youth to grow up to become sustainable and respectful hunters, anglers, trappers, and overall outdoors people,” he said. “We are really providing an opportunity for their relationship with the natural world to flourish.”

A pond inspires kids to fish. They are shown how to make their own rods with sticks and twine, whittle hooks, fasten everything together with knots, and find worms or create lures, Doak said, pointing out how these experiences foster great discussion.

“In every conversation we talk about how we can respect the natural world, how we can limit our impact on the environment, and what it means to ‘harvest sustainably,’” he said. “Respect for nature and wildlife is a pinnacle of what we do … and I believe that is the foundation on which hunters/anglers/trappers should grow.”

Dogwood Forest’s mandate

The ultimate goal is to promote and facilitate the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of children and adults through meaningful interactions in the natural environment, Brad wrote.

“Through exploration, inquiry, play, reflection, and community building we strive to create a positive learning environment that promotes achievement and development of lifelong skills and a greater connection to and appreciation for nature.”

The school has been adding additional programming for adults because more folks should benefit from learning about the outdoors. It builds resilience, patience, teamwork, and stewardship, among so many other things, Brad wrote.

“We want to be able to share our interests, passion, knowledge, and care for the natural world with others so that they too can experience its beauty and teachings.”

For more information on Dogwood Forest, click here

This profile will be featured in the July 2023 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS, on newsstands June 19.

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