Meet the Speakers

Celebrating Inclusion and Belonging in Nature

July 30 – August 2, 2023 | Nebraska City, NE 
Lied Lodge and Conference Center


“If we are to effectively inspire the next generation to care for the environment and practice sustainability, we must first provide the opportunity to form a relationship with the natural world that is deeper and more connected than simple appreciation for nature. We use the term kinship to represent relationships within the world, which includes us as human beings and our connection to the land.”Children’s Environmental Kinship Guide, 2019

Children’s Environmental Kinship Guide authors Fox, Gessler, Higgins, Warden and Williams-Ridge share insights from across the globe using a new tool which highlights connections between learning in, with, for, and about nature.

Heather Fox is the Outreach Director at the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation and uses her experiences with infants and toddlers and love of nature to facilitate workshops, presentations and design services to connect children with the natural world. Heather has a master’s in child development and culture studies from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s in biopsychology from Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Megan Gessler is the Little Trees Program Supervisor for The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. She has over a decade of experience directing and teaching in nature-based preschools and is founder of the Northern Illinois Nature Preschool Association (NINPA), and serves on the Executive Leadership Team of the North American Association of Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) Natural Start Alliance.

Amanda Higgins is a professional learning and development trainer at Storypark in New Zealand. Over the past 30 years, she has held a variety of positions and roles in early childhood education, including  university lecturer, center manager, head teacher, professional development trainer, and  mentor. She holds a master’s in education from Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, and is part of the Wellington Chapter of OMEP New Zealand.

Claire Warden is an entrepreneurial leader in the field of nature pedagogy. Prolific author with the most recent titles being…Green Teaching and Beyond the Gate. Her innovative work in planning with and for children as well as nature pedagogy has led the field for over 35 years which has improved the lives of children and families all over the world. The advisory work to many training groups and as a university lecturer is building a legacy of pedagogical skills that place the rights of children and the rest of the natural world at the very heart of practice.

Sheila Williams Ridge is director at the Child Development Lab School at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. Sheila is a facilitator for NAEYC’s Young Children and Nature Interest Forum, participates in the Voices and Choices Coalition, and serves on numerous boards. She is co-author of the book “Nature-Based Learning for Young Children: Anytime, Anywhere, on Any Budget,” published by Redleaf Press.


Additional speakers:

Alice Cohen is an Environmental Education Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service National Conservation Education program. Her 27-year career has included many aspects of the human dimensions of public land management including education, public affairs, recreation management and collaboration and facilitation work with partners. She has been awarded for her work in curriculum design and professional development program design and training facilitation. Alice, her husband and two young sons live in Asheville, North Carolina where they love to garden, hike, camp, and travel.

Sam Dennis Jr. is Professor of Planning and Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the Director of the Environmental Design Lab, where his research focuses on the experience of urban green space and human health and wellbeing.

Sandra Duncan works to assure the miracle and magic of childhood through indoor and outdoor play spaces that are intentionally designed to connect young children to their early learning environments, communities, and neighborhoods. Dr. Duncan is an international consultant, author of many books focused on the environmental design of early childhood, designer of furniture collections, and adjunct faculty at Nova Southeastern University.

Michael Fitzsimmons is a performer, composer, and teacher. When not composing and performing to audiences of all ages, you will often find Michael conducting workshops and assemblies in schools, amazing teachers by holding the attention span of kindergarteners all the way through high school students, and engaging them in the marvels of rhythm, something he has known all his life.

Carla Gull is the director of the masters of art of environmental education program and associate professor at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College in northern Indiana. She has over 20 years of experience in the education field at the preschool, elementary, and college levels. Dr. Gull enjoys helping educators incorporate more nature in the everyday early childhood setting. She hosts a podcast, Loose Parts Nature Play; facilitates an international group, Loose Parts Play; and presents workshops, presentations, and academic research around loose parts, tree climbing, outdoor classrooms, and nature education.

Dean Tagawa is currently the Executive Director for the Early Childhood Education Division in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Over the past year, early education and transitional kindergarten programs in LAUSD have grown to over 30,000 students. During that time, he has expanded preschool inclusion programs. He has been instrumental in building Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms for the students, making instructional technology a reality in the Early Education Centers, and has focused on bringing 29 dual language programs into the district’s early education programs.


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