There’s a place in Westholme where kids can see the forest and the trees, and expand their early learning horizons in a fun environment.
The place is Up Top Farm and Forest School, located on Westholme Road, for 3-5-year-olds and established almost a year ago by cousins Chelsea Trousdell and Pika Blades. As the name implies, the school is situated on an elevated property of about 5 1/2 acres owned by Trousdell, her husband and her aunt.
Trousdell and Blades both believe strongly in the forest/nature school philosophy. “Children and educators build a relationship with the land through regular and repeated access to the same outdoor space over an extended period of time,” noted Trousdell.
They look to the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada for guidance, professional development and more. “It’s an excellent resource for all forest school educators,” Trousdell added.
Her son, Barclay Mason, provided the inspiration for starting the forest school on the farm.
“We just saw him around here growing up and so confident,” Trousdell said. “This is the perfect spot for more kids. I knew other children would thrive as much as him. And I’ve always been interested in forest schools after visiting one in Norway a long time ago.”
Trousdell, 40, has more than 10 years experience as an Early Childhood Educator. Her focus has been working in the Montessori setting with an emphasis on farming, gardening and art as teaching methodologies.
She was born and grew up in the Comox Valley before moving to Vancouver and then returned to the island in 2015 to settle at the small Westholme farm that began slowly with an organic market garden. Barclay was born in 2019 and has spent the majority of his first three years outside in the forest and on the farm, playing a significant part in the launch of Up Top Farm and Forest School in 2022.
Blades, 33, grew up in Vancouver and lived in Nova Scotia for a while before coming out to visit Trousdell.
“It just sort of dawned on me, why do I live on the other side of the country?” she quipped.
Blades eventually made the move and currently lives in Cowichan Bay. She’s a certified Education Assistant who has worked in the school system alongside children with diverse needs and is also trained in Nonviolent Crisis Prevention and Intervention, has Level 1 training with the Provincial Outreach Program For Autism and Related Disorders and is certified in Standard First Aid and CPR/AED Level C.
Blades is a proponent of child-led learning, independent exploration and play as a means of building confidence, exactly what Up Top offers.
“We follow their lead,” said Trousdell. “We honour what they choose to do. We have prompts. We set up the easel on certain days.”
The children automatically let their imaginations run wild and jump right into a variety of activities.
“They don’t realize they’re learning, just interacting with each other,” said Blades.
The school has about nine children on a typical day that goes from 9 a.m.-noon. The ratio is one adult to six children so the current capacity is 12.
“A family may choose to come one day a week,” Trousdell pointed out. “It’s whatever they choose.”
The program runs Monday through Thursday and there presently is not a full day option.
The children play, learn and explore like kids do in a completely outdoor setting, with no time spent indoors.
“We’re really passionate about child development,” said Trousdell.
“It’s such a different setting than the classroom, too,” added Blades. “They get to stretch themselves out.”
“You can see the kids grow,” Trousdell enthused. “It only takes a couple of weeks and they’re fully embraced.”
The plan is to continue offering the school program year-round except for July and December.
The closure last month, especially, “worked perfect with the snow,” Trousdell noted.
Otherwise, the program goes ahead regardless of the weather. Children are asked to bring suitable clothing for the conditions, a change of clothes, water bottle and sunscreen, as required, and a snack.
Seasonal changes are part of the experience and the relationship animals and insects have with plants and the caring for plants and animals.
The farm has 50 hens near Trousdell’s residence that lay eggs for her family’s own consumption and sale, and there are five retired chickens for the forest school that the children always enjoy visiting.
The cost for the program is $35 per day. As kids turn five and age out of the program, more space will open up for other families interested in considering the option for their children.
“We definitely talk about it, we’d love to grow this business,” said Blades. “Right now, being outside we’re finding it educational for ourselves.”
“We’d love to have a full roster,” said Trousdell. “If people are curious, they should go to our website and fill out a registration form. There’s no obligation.”