By Steve Hubrecht

A Columbia Valley-born social enterprise focusing on providing resources for outdoor education has gone from strength to strength since launching a bit more than a year ago, and this fall has extended its reach right across Canada.

The local nonprofit Outdoor Learning Store (which goes by the official name Canada’s Nonprofit Outdoor Learning Store) sources outdoor educations resources and equipment, quite a lot of which can be hard to come by for teachers and other experiential educators and interpreters, and collects in under one roof, giving educators easy access “one-stop” shopping for pretty much anything they might need to get students (of any age) learning.

The store is run as a social enterprise for the Columbia Basin Environmental Education Network (CBEEN) in partnership with other regional, provincial and national nonprofits. The idea for it came after realizing the lack of a similar service anywhere in Canada, explained Outdoor Learning Store executive director, Duncan Whittick.

“We kept looking to order outdoor learning supplies from within Canada, but kept having to order from stores in the U.S. We thought, surely we can do better here in Canada, so we decided to set it up,” said Whittick.

When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hit, it highlighted the importance of outdoor eductions, said Whittick, and the Outdoor Learning Store began operating (with a physical headquarters in Athalmer) in fall 2020, starting initially by serving schools and other outdoor learning organizations across the Kootenay and elsewhere in B.C. Interest and uptake were strong, to put it mildly, and this fall, the store has upped the ante and is now serving outdoor educators and institutes nationwide.

“Comparing last October to this October, we’ve more than tripled the number of schools and organizations that we’re serving — 41 last October to 127 this October,” noted Whittick, adding in the Outdoor Learning Store’s first full year of operation it has sent shipments to more than 1,000 schools across Canada and is getting more than 1,000 educators registering for each of its online outdoor learning workshops. Indeed, the store’s upcoming winter workshops are already chock-full. Its staff (many of them based here in the Columbia Valley) has grown to 13 people. The store is not stopping at the national level, however, and Whittick has already been in conversation with some of his U.S. counterpart about bringing our outdoor learning store south of the border.

“The fact that a social enterprise can be so successful, and so quickly is inspiring,” said Outdoor Learning Store communications manager and rover, Natalie Forrest. “In many ways, it has become a hub for outdoor eduction, in our valley, but also for a larger education community that extends well beyond our valley.”

“It is filling a void that needs to be filled, and is giving environmental educators additional resources and support — that’s helping not just educator and students, but by helping foster environmental awareness, it also helps the whole Columbia Valley,” said Outdoor Learning Store Indigenous advisor, Jenna Jasek, adding that part of what makes some of the resources the store offers particularly impactful is the ability educators have to connect, through the store, with specific resource authors and creators, and learn how to use those resources to their fullest potential.

“One of the best parts is seeing this filter down to the level of our own kids,” said Outdoor Learning Store administrator, Chris O’Shaughnessy, adding that just two weeks ago, she saw her son Jasper (in Grade 3) sitting at Richie’s Point (in the area also known as the Wilmer Wetlands), on one of the store’s yellow sit-pads, absorbed in a firsthand lesson about wetlands.

“The whole idea is to give teachers the tools and the inspiration to get kids outside more,” said Jasek, adding her own daughter Kayli (in Grade 2) had recently been on a field trip to see the salmon.

“For the younger kids, the focus is primarily on being in nature, and the awe and wonder that comes with that,” said Whittick. “As the kids get older, the resources and equipment we have, hopefully, it moves into helping to foster engaged citizens.”

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