NWT works to Indigenize outdoor play for kids

As forest and nature schools grow in popularity around the globe, the Northwest Territories is working to support Indigenous perspectives and outdoor learning for young children. Early childhood programs say “people are hungry” for the opportunity. 

The territorial government – acknowledging the importance of culturally relevant programming in communities –  issued a request for proposals last month for workshops on Indigenizing outdoor play for licensed early learning and childhood educators. The successful applicant will have a $130,000 budget to provide two-day workshops in four NWT communities, including Yellowknife.

“Young children in the NWT live, develop, and grow in unique environments that are grounded in the history, cultures, and languages of the NWT’s Indigenous peoples,” Briony Grabke, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, Culture and Employment, stated in an email about the importance of the initiative. “A key aspect of forest and nature schools is building a relationship to place, through regular and repeated access to an outdoor space, in the way that is most fitting to children – through play.”


Ryan Fequet, president of the Yellowknife Day Care Association, said enhancing cultural programming was one of the priorities identified in a member survey in 2020 and a committee has been working toward that goal. The importance of on-the-land programs and traditional cultural activities, along with government funding and training, were also discussed during an online forum on childhood education in the NWT in October 2020.

“People are hungry. For that, the appetite is hungry,” Fequet said. 

He said the association is working to incorporate elements into its programs like northern animals, sharing circles, land-based activities, and Indigenous language and crafts. The association hopes to bring in an Elder for storytelling, though that has been a challenge because of Covid-19. 

“Ensuring the culture of our members is important in the programming that we’re offering,” Fequet said. 

“We work and live … on traditional lands of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and it’s an important part of reconciliation to ensure that the kids learn about the history and about some of the elements of the culture of the region.” 


NWT initiatives leading the way 

Fequet said early childhood programming focused on Indigenous culture isn’t new in the NWT and there are resources available. For example, he said, his association hopes to work with Bushkids, an on-the-land learning initiative based in Yellowknife that has received praise as an example of how to blend Western and Indigenous learning in early childhood education.

Along with weekly on-the-land programming for children aged five to 11, Bushkids offers mentorships to teachers and has partnered with Aurora College’s early learning and childcare program to support future educators. 

Across the territory, Aboriginal Head Start programs are also offering land-based and Indigenous-centred programming for young children. 

The community-based programs focus on Indigenous culture and language, school readiness, health promotion, nutrition, social support, and parental involvement. A study published by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2012 found they have a positive impact on children, including improving language, motor, and academic skills.


Renie Squirrel, who works on the Aboriginal Head Start program at the Kátł’odeeche First Nation, said culture and language are key for children.

“The kids hear the language every day in the classroom,” she said.  “It’s very important for a child to know who they are and where they come from.” 

A fish is cleaned at Frontier Lodge. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio

Through the program, Squirrel said, children have gone snowshoeing and dog sledding and learned how to make bannock on a stick, set a rabbit snare, and clean fish on the land. Children learn about how animals and hunting practices change over the seasons, along with hand games and drumming.

“Some of them are very, very passionate about that. They just love drumming,” Squirrel said, adding children leave the program with their own drum. “They love bouncing, they love learning about the drum, how it’s made, what it’s made out of.” 

Asked about the plan to introduce workshops that help to Indigenize outdoor play, Squirrel said the program would be happy to share its curriculum.

In Inuvik, Patricia Davison, executive director of the Children First Society, said several organizations provide on-the-land opportunities or programs that incorporate Indigenous knowledge. She said the society’s partnership with the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation allowed them to take children on boat trips. 

Being on the land and learning about Indigenous culture, Davison said, helps children’s mental health and develops their sense of belonging. 

“Research also tells us that just for the world in general, to get back to some of those roots and to some of those traditional ways, it’s better for the Earth, it’s better for the world, and therefore better for humans,” she said. 

Asked about potential challenges, Davison said delivering on-the-land programming can be expensive and requires the right human resources.

“Not every program has the money, the resources, the partnerships, the human resources to be able to offer such programming,” she said. 

At last year’s online forum, participants said the cost of early learning and childcare in general is expensive in the NWT and sometimes prohibitive for parents. Meanwhile, there is high turnover among staff in the field due to low wages and burnout.

In some NWT communities, there aren’t enough childcare spaces. Others don’t have any licensed early learning or childcare programs but, in some places, informal programming is being facilitated by community members.

Experts champion benefits

Alex Wilson is Neyonawak Inniniwak from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and a professor and director of the Aboriginal Education Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. She said centring and validating Indigenous knowledge in pedagogy – or the method and practice of teaching – is gaining momentum across Canada and the world. 

“In terms of the NWT, it’s a fantastic opportunity to do that, because there are so many communities and knowledge keepers and Elders that definitely can provide guidance,” she said. 

Wilson said the curriculum should be designed and developed by local Indigenous communities. She said without grounding in Indigenous knowledge, efforts to Indigenize education could become “superficial” and enforce colonial understandings or romanticism of Indigenous practices. 

“It’s entirely possible to have an education system centred on Indigenous worldviews,” she said. “I think you have the opportunity to do that there, rather than having a mainstream, western-focused education system and then adding a little bit of Indigenous knowledge here and there. You could kind-of completely change things in the Northwest Territories and I would completely support that.” 

Brye Robertson is an Inuvialuk graduate from Mount Royal University’s child studies, early learning, and childcare program who is continuing her education in social work. She said when she started her degree in 2016, she was “taken aback” by the lack of Indigenous content.

“I noted that within the first couple of weeks, I’m on Treaty 7 territory, Indigenous families all over the place, and there was nothing,” she said. “So I made it a point to do all of my papers, and my research, and one of my practicums completely on Indigenizing the early learning classroom.”

Robertson said it’s important that Indigenous children see themselves in the classroom, from the books they read to the toys they play with, so they feel included and can build a confident sense of identity. 

“It’s important work and I really just think it should be done, especially considering we’re in Canada, we’re on Indigenous lands, there are going to be Indigenous children in the classroom,” she said. 

Humber College’s early childhood education program includes a course on land-based learning and Indigenous knowledge. The course is based on Mik’maq Elder Albert Marshall’s principle of Etuaptmumk, or two-eyed seeing. 

Louise Zimanyi, a professor of early childhood education at the college whose research explores Indigenous knowledge in childhood practice, alluded to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for more culturally appropriate childhood development programs. 

Zimanyi said educators should acknowledge traditional territory, connect with Elders, and develop respectful and reciprocal relationships to the land and water.

“When you’re working with young children, and with adults too, the tendency is to take and not be mindful. So to take the maple syrup, or take the sap, or pick that flower, or take that acorn out of the forest,” she said.

“We need to think about stewardship and conservation or environmental action through a more reciprocal lens.”

Zimanyi highlighted the importance of educators connecting with Indigenous knowledge keepers and said there are many benefits to outdoor learning for children, like better engagement of the senses and more holistic development. 

“We need to provide opportunities for children to connect to what nourishes their spirit,” she said.