Takeaways from the 2016 Leadership Institute

Ask any three educators who attended the recent Leadership Institute what the experience meant to them, and you’ll likely get at least three different answers. Presented by Nature Explore and The Outdoor Classroom Project, the Institute drew educators, administrators, advocates and allied professionals from across the US. For three days we learned about and discussed connecting children with nature. We also had time outdoors to reconnect with the beautiful land surrounding Nebraska City’s Lied Lodge. Participants ranged from nationally known specialists in nature-based education, to operators of small home-based childcare services. Everyone had much to share, talk about and learn. Presentations, discussion groups and activities kept the leaning constant. As we said goodbyes to old and new friends, each of us left with experiences uniquely our own. Here’s what this year’s Leadership Institute meant to me.

Because I usually interview people for this blog by phone, the Leadership Institute is where I can meet them in person.  They (and you) are the true heroes of our movement to connect children with nature. I was honored to meet some of you last month. And as I hadn’t been able to attend last year’s Institute, I had some catching-up to do.

Diann Gano began her family child-care home thirty years ago. Her Nature Explore classroom was certified six years ago. Diann and the children of her Under the Gingko Tree Nature School were featured in a 2014 blog post “The Power of Trust.” Knowing this story is to see that in her work, Diann draws deeply from a childhood outdoors, and from her profound trust in children. Meeting her, and experiencing her infectious energy in person, was a treat over two years in the making.

Damon Kirkpatrick, Director of Operations and Development of Friends of Georgia State Parks, or simply “Friends,” told me of his passion for nature education in a phone interview this July. After just a few months of seeing the effect on children and families of the Nature Explore Classroom in Red Top State Park, he was hooked. You’ll have to wait for the upcoming blog post for the full story. But the short version is that Damon wants to see Nature Explore Classrooms in as many of Georgia’s state parks as possible. His lifelong love of nature informs his quiet passion for our mission as he explores a major fundraising campaign for more Nature Explore Classrooms.

Along with meeting people like Diann and Damon, another heartfelt takeaway for me was in seeing how quickly the Nature Explore mission is taking root in major organizations. The base of our growing family is the home care businesses, the public and private school, museum and nature center. Yet large organizations are also adopting Nature Explore Classrooms as the standard for outdoor education. I’ve been chronicling them in blog posts. Yet at the Leadership Institute I was fortunate to meet some of their representatives, Damon among them.

The first two of these large organizations were the US Forest Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Their generous institutional and financial support has brought the Nature Explore Classroom experience to thousands of children and families across the country. Next was the Los Angeles Unified School District, through their preschools.  Around this time, Workforce Solutions of Central Texas adopted our model as the standard of outdoor spaces for preschools throughout the Killeen area. Then came the state of Indiana, through its Association for the Education of Young Children affiliate. Most recently, as you’ll soon learn, it’s the Friends of Georgia State Parks. Each of these organizations has embraced the research-based Nature Explore Classroom as the standard for a profound means of connecting children with nature.

LI 9I have long believed that the day will come when people think of outdoor classrooms for children instead of traditional playgrounds. They will understand the rich whole-child learning opportunities nature holds for children. They will understand the expanded levels of engagement between adult and child that are also available. They will also think of Nature Explore’s research-based model of the outdoor classroom as the standard. When that time comes, our individual heroes and our organizational champions will have inspired this transformation in our society’s understanding of both children and nature.

More clearly than ever, that day seems to be drawing closer. That’s what the 2016 Leadership Institute meant to me.  Those of you who were there, please feel free to share your thoughts about the experience.