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Laura Whittaker

Environmental Educator Laura Whittaker helps run a small nature preschool called Wind Ridge Schoolhouse in Duluth, MN off of Lake Superior. They are a smaller school space that allows for a large community focus, and a Cedarsong Way accredited school, which allows for a full nature immersion program. Developed by Erin Kenney and Robin Rogers, Cedarsong Way nature pedagogy is a curriculum that is deeply focused on nature-play and inquiry (Wind Ridge Schoolhouse, 2023). Here the children get to play outside all year round and focus on their connection to nature. 

For Laura, being an outdoor educator is what feels best to her. From the start of her teaching training and journey she was immediately pulled into this field and wanted to understand more about how the land could not only teach her but also the young learners she works with. In explaining her passion, Laura says :This is the type of education I want to be a part of…connecting children to nature and to themselves and to their sense of place. I  just felt this real urgency to do this work, with all the harm that has been done between the dominant culture and nature.

Laura explains that the forest that the school is in is their second home. This is where the children grow up and get to explore everything around them. These children get to shift and change and still stay connected to the woods. Laura explains that using Natural Curiosity as a guide has allowed their teaching staff to move further towards incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing and being deeper in their practice. Laura focuses on relationship-building to come to a slow, child-led teaching practice, advocating that “a childhood rooted in nature should be a right for all children. 

Laura explains that there is a rich nature-based community in Duluth, MN —  she notes that it is like a rich soil with multiple different types of fungi growing through it. It is a large community of like-minded outdoor educators who rely on each other for support and growth within this field and truly hold one another up. At Wind Ridge Schoolhouse they had the opportunity to build a Community of Practice (CoP) model using the Natural Curiosity resource. A community of practice is a “group of people who share a common concern, a set of problems, or interest in a topic and who come together to fulfill both individual and group goals… CoPs often focus on sharing best practices and creating new knowledge to advance a domain of professional practice” (Cambridge et. al, 2005, p.1). As part of this CoP they consulted local educators, practitioners, and an Ojibwe Elder.These relationships allowed for a deepening of the questions they had surrounding how to connect this love for nature and play into a more Indigenous, reciprocal way of knowing. 

As a community they chose a focus on empathy and decided that their guiding question for their CoP would be “how can an Indigenous lens help young learners build more empathy for their peers and nature around them?”. Through this work the community built a framework that used all four branches of  Natural Curiosity:Lighting the Fire, Sending out Roots, The Flow of Knowledge, and Breathing with the World. The group met seven times and built connections each week while learning together. Laura explains that getting to the “why” behind how they feel outside was a large takeaway from this work. She emphasizes that she feels much more confident to blend Indigenous perspectives into her creativity as an educator. This framework helped her understand how these concepts connect to her penchant for outdoor storytelling, and she feels a transformative shift through her learning.

Laura tells her Educator Story with laughter, joy and immense gratitude for the work that her community did together. She feels that the children now are “deeply within, and embedded” into their nature around them and are consistently giving back to the land. 

When asked what advice she would give to any educator starting their journey in outdoor education, Laura passionately says that community is everything. She explains that finding your community of people who can hold you up, challenge you and celebrate you makes all of the difference in the learning: There are so many ways to be connected, and to deeply know that this learning is a long time journey, we need each other to help grow with those shifts

-By Myah Birrell 

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