Updated article coming in 2020

From outdoor schools to summer camps to ecotourism, opportunities for environmental education abound in Howe Sound’s “outdoor classrooms.” The increase in outdoor learning provides health benefits with no known negative impacts.

Author: Bob Turner, Geoscientist and Citizen Scientist, Bowen Island, Howe Sound

Reviewers: Scott Slater, Principal, Bowen Island Community School, Bowen Island

Conor McMullan, Director of Educational Programs, Cheakamus Centre

Banner Photo Credit: Tim Turner

What’s happening?


 Each year, over 22,000 students experience environmental education with Howe Sound as the classroom.

The Howe Sound area hosts the largest regional cluster of summer camps, outdoor schools, and environmental programs in British Columbia. Many more, young and old, meet and learn about nature through schools and universities, local community groups, and commercial ecotourism in Howe Sound. This outdoor learning relies on proximity to Vancouver and the diverse geography and ecology that Howe Sound offers.

Howe Sound’s role as a classroom continues to grow. Camp Suzuki, a summer environmental program run by the David Suzuki Foundation and Squamish Nation, had its first season at Camp Fircom on Gambier Island in 2015. West Vancouver School District began a new year-round outdoor program in 2013 at its elementary school on Bowen Island. A boom in ecotourism is also playing a role in environmental education. For example, Sea to Sky Gondola drew about 300,000 visitors in 2014, its first year of operation. Sea to Sky Gondola employs nature guides and interpretive signage to explain Howe Sound geography, marine biology and First Nations culture at the viewpoints and along its trails. In 2014, Sewell’s Marina expanded its Sea Safari boat tours to link with land-based tours of Sea to Sky Gondola, Britannia Mine, and the Sea to Sky Highway.


Squamish Nation canoe at Camp Suzuki. (Photo: Carmen Leung)

Why is it important?


Nature provides opportunities for cognitive development through education and research about organisms and habitats. The estimated value of nature-based education was based on the 2012 Canadian Nature Survey… we arrived at a total value of approximately $9.5 million per year.”


Sound Investment: Measuring the Return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets (Michelle Molnar, 2015, David Suzuki Foundation)

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), environmental education is a process that allows individuals to explore environmental issues, engage in problem solving, and take action to improve the environment. As a result, individuals develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues and have the skills to make informed and responsible decisions. Between 2001 and 2004 the American Camp Association conducted research with over 5,000 families from 80 camps to determine the outcomes of the camp experience as expressed by parents and children. Parents, camp staff, and children reported significant growth in self-esteem, peer relationships, independence, adventure and exploration, leadership, environmental awareness, friendship skills, values and decisions, social comfort, spirituality. It’s not peer-reviewed research but check it out here!


Capilano University students discuss the natural history of the Squamish Estuary. (Photo: Roy Jansen)

Capilano University students discuss the natural history of the Squamish Estuary. (Photo: Roy Jansen)

First Nations Connection


Four out of 12 environmental education organizations surveyed included some First Nation heritage or Indigenous practices content in their curriculum. This is particularly relevant as the Ministry of Education has recognized the importance of integrating First Nations Principles of Learning across the curriculum. On the other hand, First Nations inhabiting or using Howe Sound since time immemorial have been educating their children immersed in the environment without exception. There was no other classroom.

The Skw’une-was program at Cheakamus Centre has shared traditional practices of First Nations people since 1986 through its overnight programs at its Coast Salish Big House. Students engage in traditional long house life, eating traditional foods over open fires, hearing local legends and traditional songs; and learning about ceremonies, medicinal plants, basket-weaving and carving.

Picture 1

Skw’une-was ceremony. (Photo: Cheakamus Centre)


“South of Squamish beside Highway 99 is the celebrated granite mountain known to the Squamish people as Siyám Smánit (the Chief). In the long ago, the mountain was actually a longhouse transformed to stone by Xáys (transformer brothers). If you look closely at the mountain you can see the outlines of the animals and people trapped inside when it was transformed. Also visible is a dark vertical line said to have been created by the corrosive skin of a two-headed sea serpent, Sínulhkay, as he slithered to the summit.”

 – reproduced with permission from “Where Rivers, Mountains and People Meet,” Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre.

Picture 1

Siyam Smanit (the Chief) in the foreground, right. (Photo: Gary Fiegehen)


What is the current status?


Howe Sound’s diversity of wild spaces yet proximity to metropolitan Vancouver make it an ideal outdoor classroom. In 2015, five outdoor school programs brought over 15,000 elementary and secondary school students to Howe Sound from the Vancouver region and Sea to Sky Corridor.  Public secondary and elementary schools in Squamish, Lions Bay, West Vancouver, North Vancouver, Bowen Island, Langdale, and Gibsons, as well as a private school on Bowen Island used their school sites and nearby Howe Sound forests and shores to teach a variety of natural science subjects. Two universities, Quest University Canada and Capilano University, have campuses in the Squamish area and conduct field-based courses for undergraduate students, principally at Squamish Estuary, Porteau Cove Provincial Park, and Lighthouse Park.

Local community groups are also important environmental educators. Groups such as the Lighthouse Park Preservation Society, Squamish River Watershed Society, Sunshine Coast Naturalists, Friends of Cypress Park, and Bowen Nature Club conduct interpretive hikes and other outdoor activities for the public throughout the year. Each winter, the Squamish Environmental Society and the Brackendale Art Gallery run the Eagle Watch program and Bald Eagle Festival to help thousands view and learn about the yearly return of eagles to the Squamish area. Cheakamus Centre in the Paradise Valley hosts a community Open House to share outdoor environmental learning with its 2000+ annual visitors.


Figure 1. Establishment of camps and outdoor schools in Howe Sound continued steadily through the 20th century.

For over 50 years, Howe Sound has been the site of one of the largest concentrations of summer camps in British Columbia. One camp started operating in 1907! Each decade through the 1990s has seen more camps opening and there are 13 camps and outdoor schools in the vicinity today (Figure 1). Thousands of youth and adults enroll in outdoor recreational programs at eight camps, primarily during the summer months. (See the full pdf report for a table of current environmental education programs in Howe Sound.)

What can you do?



Individual and Organization Actions:

  • Familiarize yourself with educational opportunities available to all ages in Howe Sound, and get involved!
  • Explore opportunities to incorporate outdoor learning and natural sciences into professional development.


Government Actions and Policy:


  • Increase awareness of and encourage participation in the many educational opportunities offered in Howe Sound for all ages.
  • Prioritize protection of Howe Sound’s natural beauty so that it remains preserved for educational opportunities to thrive and expand in the future.
  • Support research on children and youth development outcomes from natural science educational opportunities, in order to better understand and document the benefits of these programs, and justify further growth.
  • Collect and maintain information on educational opportunities and participation in Howe Sound to track trends to understand needs and desires for this type of learning.
  • Identify additional local conservation groups, citizen science projects, and restoration efforts for potential collaborations with educational initiatives. 
  • Capitalize on the uniqueness of Howe Sound’s natural beauty and accessible location by expanding outdoor education programs throughout more schools in the Greater Vancouver Area.

Additional Content and References in Full Article

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