Tom Lewis has been inspired by nature since he first went to camp as a child.
He slept under the stars, put a little elbow grease on long canoe trips and in doing so found a defining element in his life.
As a teacher he did what he could to focus on outdoor education and found the right fit at Pickering College (PC) in Newmarket. Since retiring as the Independent School’s Director of Leadership and Community Service in 2013, Lewis has continued as PC’s Outdoor Education Specialist.
Today, through his extensive work in bringing students back to nature, Lewis has been recognized by the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority (LSRCA) with its 2021 Healthy Community Award.
“Our outdoor education program at Pickering College has flourished under Tom’s guidance and expertise,” Janet Downer, deputy director of the school, university and student programs, said in a statement. “He has a knack for connecting students to the natural environment. Tom certainly deserves this award.
This gift was recognized by his peers because it was his former colleague Noeline Burk, retired PC chief arts officer, who nominated it for the award.
“Tom Lewis is definitely one of the most deserving of this award,” said Burk. “His knowledge and expertise are second to none, but it is his willingness to share and his spirited and confident performance over so many years to so many students and fellow teachers that prompted me to name him.
Being recognized by the LSRCA “really took my breath away,” Lewis says. His appointment from a former colleague was just the icing on the cake.
“I thought it was the best thing in the world,” Lewis said during his first outdoor education exhibit. “When I decided to go into teaching, I asked my advisor at Queen’s University if there were any schools that had outdoor activities because I didn’t just want to be in one. classroom. ”
He began his teaching career at Rosseau Lake College, noting that being a teacher in independent schools allowed him “the freedom to do this stuff, beyond my other teaching and coaching responsibilities.” .
This was also the case at Pickering College and when he retired he jumped at the chance to help the school build its outdoor education program almost from scratch – both on their Bayview Avenue campus as well as at Blue & Silver Farm, the Whitchurch-Stouffville outdoor education property.
“We did things in class that really resonated with the kids, just being outside and learning things like habitat and how to identify different animal tracks,” says Lewis. “I’m a firm believer in the idea that it’s one thing to say that people are good stewards of the environment, but the more time they spend in the environment, the more likely they are to want to protect it. A lot of people say, “I spend a lot of time in the woods,” but what do they do? They say, “I jog this trail all the time,” but with their headphones on, walking their dogs, holding their cups of coffee. How many times do you go off the trail and look for signs of animals? When you ask the kids to do that, it’s pretty special. You see it’s part of their way of life and it’s huge.
Children don’t usually get outside enough these days, he says, and the natural environment “has so many good things for us” beyond just getting outdoors. It’s having the ability to explore and have unstructured play.
“No matter where you are, there is something around your school where you can walk and have an outdoor space,” he says of the possibilities for fostering outdoor learning in all school settings. “There are probably trees there, things you can encourage the kids to do there, and parents can do a lot of things with their kids on their own properties, whether it’s planting in the garden, hanging up a white sheet on a tree, wait until nightfall, grab your flashlight and see what kinds of bugs you can attract. It doesn’t have to be really complex. We built snow forts on our lawn with our children. We heard about the trees that were in our garden and in our neighborhood. We learned about the animal tracks that we would see while walking the dog. Smell things, touch things, get dirty – everything is fine.