“It was a special place,” Claire Miller says of the wetlands on the farm she grew up on. Some of the land was leased to Ducks Unlimited and she spent her after-school hours exploring the network of ponds: “I could raft across ‘my’ slough with my dog and had heaps of freedom to explore.” Her grandfather was her nature mentor, teaching her to value being outdoors, going for long walks, gardening, picking berries, and pruning trees. She thought her way of life was normal, but when she invited her high school friends home, they thought it was strange to want to camp and build forts.

Claire’s educational path was an extension of her childhood experience. She obtained a certificate in ecological education from the University of Saskatchewan and a Bachelor’s degree in outdoor education at Lakehead University. She went on to obtain a Master’s degree in environmental studies at York University where she researched and wrote her thesis on intergenerational learning with grandparents as nature mentors.

Both Claire’s parents were teachers and she had an aversion to becoming one – until she began to realize that a different kind of teaching might be her calling. Five years teaching in Saskatoon Public School’s Ecoquest program was her “dream job come true.” Once her son was born, Claire searched and schemed for ways to continue pursuing the work she found deeply meaningful. She’d never considered starting a business (beyond her failed corn crop when she was 10), but all the newfound time at home on maternity leave created conditions for entrepreneurial planning.

Founding Wildernook

Claire initially planned to create a business focused on a nature grandparenting program, but her friends advised her to widen her focus. This is how she landed on the broader goal of Wildernook Fresh Air Learning getting people outdoors and hooked on nature. When developing programs for Wildernook, she enjoyed exploring questions such as: “What if there was an Ecoquest for five year olds? What would that look like? What does nature education look like for a baby? How can we build community outdoors during the pandemic?”

Wildernook has grown and evolved from its early days when Claire facilitated Nature Grandparenting while wearing her baby on her back. She’s welcomed the ideas and initiative of her staff team and  has learned to be responsive to comfort level and interests and respectful of what is age-appropriate for participants. Urban children aren’t as free as Claire was when she was growing up. Due to societal expectations, “parents are now gatekeepers for kids to get out in nature and not all parents want to spend time outdoors with their kids themselves.” Claire says, “We can help take on that responsibility for them.”

In response to a ‘pain point’ she identified in her own family, Wildernook began offering after-school programs at several Saskatoon schools. They pick the children up from school and walk to a nearby nature site to play, climb trees, get curious about nature, role play, and learn outdoor skills. “Kids have input into the activities we do and become involved in planning the sessions,” Claire says. “It’s quite different from dance classes where the instructor decides the curriculum.” The schools have been supportive, promoting the program and offering emergency shelter in bad weather.

Wildernook on Skis

Claire loves to cross-country ski and initially planned to offer a ski experience for kids. She was surprised to discover the bulk of the interest was from adults who enjoy the opportunity to ski in transformed urban spaces, such as golf courses. Taking advantage of municipal grants, Claire has partnered with two community associations and the ski club to set up three child-sized ski loppets with stations along the trail where kids can ring a bell, sing a song, or go over a bump. “The trails have so much potential for physical activity in the winter,” Claire says. “They’re walking distance from the children’s homes and the activities make it more exciting and give the kids something to ski towards.”

Discovering a Need for a Children’s Pedal Bus

While teaching at Sylvia Fedoruk School, Claire would take the students to the Northeast Swale, but it was a long walk for the younger children. This prompted her to investigate obtaining a pedal bus. She later secured a grant from the City of Saskatoon and has permission to run the Punch Buggy Express, a child-sized pedal bus on the Meewasin trails. Although she uses the pedal bus for some of Wildernook’s summer camps, it has become a separate activity, offering rides along the river in downtown Saskatoon to watch the pelicans, appreciate the tree canopy, and try to ‘race’ the Prairie Lily Riverboat.

Collaborations Create Golden Opportunities

In collaboration with SaskOutdoors, Wildernook has offered day-long family programs in Prince Albert, Martensville, and North Battleford. Claire has also worked with Prince Albert’s recreation coordinator to develop a kids’ summer day camp. “Little Red River Park is a gem spot for kids to have a nature experience,” Claire says. “We’re also able to offer training for Prince Albert’s summer program leaders.” One hundred children participated last year, moving through a variety of different stations from net dipping in a marshy area to identifying plants. “It’s not rigidly scheduled,” Claire says. “They build a forest hangout and there’s a mock beach scene so the kids can have some downtime between learning experiences.” This event has become a tradition families look forward to, and Claire is looking forward to leading the third year of camp this summer.

Most recently, Wildernook teamed up with the City of Saskatoon, SaskOutdoors, Nature Saskatchewan, and Saskatchewan Parks and Recreation to offer the Get Outside! Kids’ Club in Saskatoon. This program was founded in Regina to provide free monthly outdoor learning opportunities for caregivers and children ages 6 to 13 in nearby nature. Each month during the school year, the Get Outside! Kids Club will showcase and facilitate ecological learning and stewardship opportunities at a different naturalized park or green space within the City of Saskatoon. The goal of this project is to support families in developing meaningful nature connections to the special ‘nearby nature’ sites they visit.

Claire thrives on collaborating with other organizations and is keen to see what opportunities might be waiting around the corner. “Even though we’re a very small business,” Claire says, “I feel we’re making a difference. More families are asking for nature-based learning. We’re making a meaningful contribution.”

Additional Resources

Play & Learn with Nature Companion [EcoFriendly West]

Nature Books for Kids by Canadian Authors [EcoFriendly West]

Photo provided by Claire Miller

EcoFriendly West informs and encourages initiatives that support Western Canada’s natural environment through its online publication and the Nature Companion website/app. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or Mastodon, or subscribe by email.