Everyone is a Learner at the 2014 Leadership Institute

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant


“Even better than last year’s Leadership Institute,” is the thought voiced by many returnees. One first-timer told me, “From now on, this is an annual event for me.”   People left last week’s Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project’s annual Leadership Institute with new and renewed friendships, inspiration, and valuable ideas that can be put into practice in the service of connecting children to nature.

Everyone is a learner at the Leadership Institute.  Everyone from workshop presenters to first-time attendees has ideas to share with others; both in workshops and during informal discussions. True wisdom about connecting children with nature is not held by any one individual.  It resides in the ongoing dialogue between us all.  Our dialogue reaches its most productive level during Leadership Institutes, where ideas of people at all levels of experience intermix.

This is the “secret” to why the Leadership Institute just keeps on getting better every year.  The program is an evolving blend of the “tried-and-true” workshops and the entirely new presentations.  My favorite example of the “tried-and-true” is the conference-long Designer Track, and my favorite new feature was the “Sharing our Work” series of brief presentations of many individual projects.

The “tried-and-true” designer track included experienced landscape designers mixed with outdoor classroom operators and teachers.  Sam Dennis, Professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Douglas Godfrey, Parks Planner for Boulder, Colorado’s Department of Parks and Recreation mixed with Andrea Blaha, Trail Specialist and Naturalist at Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s Indian Creek Nature Center, and Lisa Oltmans, a Teacher at St. Paul Lutheran School, in Beatrice, Nebraska.  The Nature Explore team facilitated the group’s process of developing three new, full outdoor classroom designs. They  were based on the natural features of one outdoor space at the Arbor Day Farm, and on the widely varying requirements of three imaginary clients.  All designs were presented to the entire conference on the last day.  Collective wisdom, shared with the entire conference, was this group’s gift to us all.

During “Sharing Our Work” presentations we learned highlights of many diverse outdoor classroom settings.  Although individual voices are the mainstay of the many workshops, these presentations, augmented by photos, was the chance for the entire group to hear these voices.  And one of these voices powerfully transported us all on a journey into the heart of nature, and into abiding human connections.

Rebecca Kreth and Peggy McCloud, both of Tacoma, Washington, presented on activities with the Puyallup Native American Tribe’s Grandview Early Learning Center, and on the local culture surrounding it.  Peggy, a Puyallup, brought a painted drum and a woven basket to the podium.  After talking about her tribe’s culture, Peggy placed her hands on the decorative basket, and the magic began.  She told the story of a young Native American basket weaver who had not yet “found her own design” for her work. Tribal women take her into a forest, and tell her that she’ll find her design by continuing alone.  The young woman moves in fright through the forest, having no idea what the elders meant.  She soon meets a series of animals that question why she is there.  Through these dialogues she experiences her people’s vivid and living connection with nature, and begins to find her “own design.”  As she emerges from the forest we all discover that the women had been waiting for her all along, and welcome her back to the community, now ready to share nature-inspired learning.  Few eyes were dry as Peggy left the podium.

Isn’t this story’s dialog, between nature and man, the story of the Leadership Institute itself?  Over a hundred and thirty of us left our daily lives back home, journeyed into a nature rich setting for three days, engaged in many dialogues, then emerged with new ideas to inform our own ways of connecting children with nature.

If you have attended past Leadership Institutes, please return next year for renewal.  We need your informed voice.  If you haven’t, please join us.  Your voice, and ours will be enriched.