The Places We Went and the People We Met: Looking Back on Our Journeys in 2014

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant


Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting many inspiring people in our ever-growing Nature Explore family. Their diversity of perceptions and experiences was balanced by the unified passion they hold for connecting children with nature. We met Heather Hess, the mother who made a nature playscape in her backyard and advocated for two Nature Explore Outdoor classrooms in her community. Then, there was Diann Gano, a preschool owner whose trust in her students’ problem-solving skills is rooted in her own childhood experiences. We also went back in time to meet G. Stanley Hall, who in the 1890s wrote observations on children’s play outdoors that seem remarkably current. We met the remarkable Bird Team, and more.

Here’s a look back at some of the people we learned from last year:

Heather and Kipper Hess of Lincoln, Nebraska have three girls. They all attended the Dimensions preschool, which has the first Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. After seeing their children thrive in this outdoor learning environment, Heather and Kipper built special nature activity areas in their backyard. But that wasn’t enough. Heather wanted to ensure that the preschool’s outdoor focus wouldn’t be lost as her children transitioned to elementary school. She joined the group of parents that successfully advocated for an outdoor classroom at the local school—but even that wasn’t enough. Heather then brought the idea to her church. Saint Matthews Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Nebraska now features an exquisitely designed Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Mother Nature inspired a determined mother, and a whole community benefitted.

Diann Gano, owner/operator of Under the Gingko Tree preschool in Rock Island, Illinois, learned appropriate risk-taking as a child. She mostly played outdoors with boys, as her neighborhood had few girls.  Crossing streams, jumping over logs, and climbing rocks gave her a love of the woods, and confidence in her outdoor skills. She trusts that children at Under the Gingko Tree will learn to negotiate the irregularities of the outdoor classroom by trial and error and by using good judgment.

That trust paid off during a three-day series of attempts by children to get leaves off the roof of a low shed. The final (and successful) ascent to the roof, using a wide sheet of angled plywood as a ladder, was a test for Diann as well as the children. She stood nearby, anxiously, at the ready to help. Yet she let the children figure out how to get up to the roof. They did so safely, and gained a well-earned sense of accomplishment. Diann showed us the power of trust. She trusted in her own past as being an appropriate guide for working with her students, and she trusted the children to use good sense and appropriate risk-taking. Skills in trial-and-error planning, physics, and coordination with peers were exercised along with their bodies. This fluidity of whole-child learning, capped by the thrill of accomplishment, is rarely achieved indoors.

Moving back to the 19th century, we met G. Stanley Hall, one of America’s early pioneers in psychology and education (or at least, we met his legacy). A family he knew dumped a large pile of sand in their backyard. Over the following years, young boys played in that space with friends. The children built families, houses, neighborhoods, and towns from sand, wood, stone, and other materials. A town government was formed, and laws enacted. Hall took note of the play that developed over the years, marveling at the complexity of learning he witnessed. In his “The Story of a Sand Pile,” (1897), Hall theorized that the learning gained in this backyard was far deeper than what would have developed in an indoor classroom.

In Denver, Colorado, we caught up with Brett Dabb, Director of Warren Village’s preschool. The Warren Village housing complex serves a population of single-parent families that are emerging from homelessness. Their school actually has two new Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms: one for preschoolers, and one for infants and toddlers. For years, Brett has researched and studied the benefits of nature for both children and adults. He is an avid camper, and a natural with children outdoors. Although students of the preschool are the primary beneficiaries of the outdoor classroom, the Warren Village community as a whole uses it during evenings and weekends. Brett sees the space as a place of learning, refuge, and healing for the entire community.

Crossing over into Nebraska, we met Amber Gamble and Brenda Murphy, teachers at the St. Augustine Mission School in Winnebago. They work with Native American children who have largely lost touch with the deep spiritual connections to nature enjoyed by their ancestors. Some of the children live in unsafe neighborhoods where outdoor play is rare.

The Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is the one place where many can feel the true beauty and peace of nature. Classes that would otherwise be taught indoors are held in the outdoor classroom because Amber and Brenda believe the children simply learn more effectively outdoors. And through the medicine garden, children are reconnecting with their ancestral heritage, learning to renew the honor of being nature’s stewards.

Then we met Lincoln, Nebraska’s all-season, indomitable protectors of wildlife, known as “The Bird Team.” Ensuring that bird-feeders are full during harsh weather and breaking ice in birdbaths before refilling them are only some of the services they perform. When the Bird Team’s activities caught the attention of younger preschoolers, a second team was started. Children in the Bird Teams engage in research, learn responsibility to nature, develop social and academic skills, and coordinate roles and responsibilities in their group activities. Yet from the children’s perspective, they’re simply on a mission and having fun. GO BIRD TEAM!

Finally, in 2014, we: visited a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom at the Creston National Fish Hatchery in Kalispell, Montana; recalled Puff the Magic Dragon; met children who placed caring for worms ahead of their own snack time; and much more. We met diverse children whose lives are enriched through contacts with nature, and adults deeply committed to these connections. May the people and ideas you’ve encountered here suggest new journeys with children into nature and learning.