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With fairy doors and postal squirrels, teacher creates magical space in city park (10 photos)

Melissa Kooiman wanted to create a joyful and safe space for her students during the pandemic

There’s a magical space in the woods on Marksam Park filled with colourful fairy doors, hand-painted bird feeders, a wooden bear and even forest mail.

“If you create intentional spaces then people will care for it. And that is what has happened,” said Melissa Kooiman, an early childhood educator at the Upper Grand District School Board who initiated the project with the school board by her #ledbylittles initiative, which encourages people to see magic in everyday things. 

Kooiman and her teaching partner kicked off the project with community members last summer where they created ‘magical’ areas in the park such as the Bear Den, Wishing Tree, Chickadee Street, Mister Tree, Monarch Meadow and the Friendly Folk Forest. 

Each area has its own charm. For example, students write letters to a tree called Mister Tree and put them in the forest mailbox in Friendly Folk Forest, leaving it up to the postal squirrels to deliver them. Chickadee Street is filled with bird houses and fairy doors. Wishing Tree encourages students to leave hand-written wishes on branches, Bear Den has a carved wooden bear and Monarch Meadow will soon have flowers that attract butterflies. 

“Now what we’re seeing is just ownership from people in the community or families from our schools. Other classrooms are inspiring ideas for other classrooms and it's just growing,” said Kooiman.

Kooiman said Marksam Park forest — which neighbours Westwood Public School — has been used by students for years. Two years ago, she decided to create a special space for kindergarten students with the help of her teaching partner Megan Waddell. 

Kooiman said when she returned to school from maternity leave last summer during the pandemic, it was important for her to create a space that was safe and exciting. 

“Everybody is experiencing stress right now,” said Kooiman, “and we wanted to rewrite that narrative and be all joy as much as possible.”

Kooiman and Waddell reached out to the city informing them of her initiative in the woods where they would create intentional spaces that would allow children in the neighbourhood to be in touch with their imagination. Local arborists then volunteered their time to move and arrange wooden logs to create seating areas for neighbourhood and school children to play. 

Community members then helped them create these magical spaces with items that can quickly be removed as well. 

“We had a bunch of different people and organizations donate funds for us to purchase tarps and bungee cords and Thermoses and tents structures so we can pop up tents and have the kids outside to break the wind and rain a little bit,” said Kooiman.

When interest in the space grew, Kooiman named the spaces and created schedules to allow students from kindergarten to Grade 8 to visit the different areas. In the winter, Kooiman even went to the fire pits with her teaching partner to light lanterns and read stories to online students while sitting in the forest.

“It’s been really fun to go out there and hammer the stakes in the ground anonymously and then sort of walk through and hear the whisperings,” said Kooiman who worked with her husband, a woodworker to create the signs for the spaces. 

“There's been multiple times we’ve heard families that are not even connected to the school say 'Oh we're going to the ‘Bear Den’ or “Oh we’re going to Chickadee Street.”

Kooiman said there are future projects in the works such as a little library where children can learn about trees and a community garden that will be built on the school property called the Hive.

Kooiman said the goal of the project is for students to feel a connection to life in the forest where they can envision themselves as guardians of it.

“It just feels like a living, breathing magical project,” she said.

She said personifying elements in nature taps into a child's curiosity and helps support their developing empathy skills. 

“Mister Tree is their friend, so they are concerned for his well-being and the place he calls home. These early interactions with nature help children become stewards of the earth later in life.” said Kooiman.



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Anam Khan

About the Author: Anam Khan

Anam Khan is a journalist who covers numerous beats in Guelph and Wellington County that include politics, crime, features, environment and social justice
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