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Eliza Minucci is a humble yet powerful force in the movement to get kids outdoors and learning through play in nature. As an educator, consultant, speaker, and professional development provider, she believes, “education is at its best when teachers are empowered to teach through their passions, to develop themes and content, to learn and grow alongside their students.” She says, “Taking their students outside has offered many teachers the chance to grow in their profession, to rediscover joy in their careers, and to connect more deeply with their students.”

A New Hampshire native, Eliza grew up knowing she wanted to one day be a teacher, “I wanted to be a teacher since my first day of first grade. I had, most likely, the best first-grade teacher on the planet. Both my parents were teachers. Even my great-grandmother taught at a one-room school in the Northeast Kingdom.”

Eliza has taught in a variety of places, from urban Chicago to coastal Mexico, from Seattle neighborhoods to an off-grid bush-village Alaska. “Teaching in all these settings I learned that where I felt most connected to my community and my students was where I was most connected to the land. I felt the most grounded, and the most authentic when I was splitting wood, hauling water, collecting berries, and learning and working in the woods.”

When Eliza ultimately settled in Vermont and began teaching kindergarten at the Ottaquechee School she felt compelled to give her students a foundational connection to nature. “It was a gift that could not be taken away, and as it had done for me, it would accompany them to the farthest corners of the earth, but also home to their backyard.”

Soon after she began teaching in Vermont, Eliza participated in the Trail to Every Classroom program, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “From this program, I developed a program I called KinderGuiding,” Eliza remembers. “KinderGuiding involved all of the kindergartners in my school. We partnered with local retirees and had three nature-based outings together culminating in a mile-long hike together on the Appalachian Trail. Through this experience, I developed my comfort leading students in wild spaces and saw the light in their eyes when we went to the woods.”

Then, inspired by, School’s Out, a documentary about Forest Kindergartens in Switzerland, and encouraged by principal, Amos Kornfeld, Eliza enlisted a former intern, Meg Teachout, to help her develop a more frequent outdoor program for her kindergarteners. After attending a course at Antioch University New England and receiving funding from the Byrne Foundation and the Wellborn Ecology Fund, Eliza and Meg embarked on their first year of ForestKinder—one day every week in the woods.

“My teaching has always been driven by a desire to cultivate and honor the independence and confidence of my young students. As a kindergarten teacher, I believed my students should be coming to know school as a place they belonged, where we knew each other well, recognized our strengths and tried new things together. Fundamentally, I believe the education of young children should first be characterized by joy.”

These days, Eliza is taking some time away from teaching to raise her two young sons. She also runs ForestKinder, a not-for-profit initiative aimed at providing professional development to would be outdoor educators. She is, “happily up to [her] ears in work helping other teachers develop committed outdoor programming in their public-school classrooms.” ForestKinder facilitates professional learning communities of teachers looking to root their teaching practice in place outdoors. Eliza says, “In our first three years we’ve worked with over 30 educators around the Upper Valley. Our alumni lead forest day programs for preschool through fifth grade in more than ten Upper Valley public schools.”

 

You can join this joyful community of educators by registering for the 2018 Outdoor Play and Learning Professional Learning Community.
These professional learning communities meet teachers where they are and support them to take their teaching to the next level. When asked what success looks like for nature-based education, Eliza says that “We should expect students’ academic skills, as traditionally tested, to improve alongside an effective outdoor play and learning program. But to me, it comes down to joy. Is the experience of the children and the adults involved in this endeavor full of joy? Have we tried hard, failed, tried again and succeeded? Are there moments to celebrate? Are there stories to tell at the end of the day? Do the students race up the trail to their sit-spots, and remember those spots years later? Do they proclaim, “I’m tough!”, “I’m strong!”, “I did it myself!”, “I’m an expert on salamanders!” or maybe, “When I went to the forest I became a woodpecker. Then I was a kid again.”

Eliza is currently working on a book to be published this summer. “The Forest Days Handbook: Program Design for Nature-based School Days,” with a foreword by David Sobel, will answer the greatest hits of how-to questions for early and elementary educators seeking to commit to taking their students to a local wildspace for play and learning. Photos and seasonal narratives will accompany the details to provide a healthy dose of inspiration to teachers, administrators, and parents.

Eliza says, “I look forward to returning to full-time teaching, hopefully back in kindergarten, and back in the woods. Now I am just happy to be able to support teachers in doing this kind of work. For as long as there are teachers wondering, “Could I possibly….” I hope I will be nearby to say “Yes! You can!”

Eliza’s Tips for Outdoor Educators

  1. My first tip is straight from ForestKinder co-founder Meg Teachout. “Try it. Just try it.” She’s so right. From our forthcoming Forest Days Handbook: “Take recess to the woods, or even to the drainage ditch. Take the read aloud to the lawn. Take your snack to the trees. Then ask your students to tell you what they see, and hear, and smell; ask them to draw it. Ask them to build something: for a fairy, for a worm, for themselves, for a classmate, for the school. Ask them to count the number of creatures in a circle a foot in diameter, count the sounds in ten minutes, count the branch whorls on a pine tree. Ask them what they would like to do with a free afternoon in this wildspace, then say: Try it.”
  2. My second tip is to find a collaborator. Find a parent, a grandparent, a colleague, an administrator, an intern, anyone who will take on this project with you. It is hard to do something new, to think outside of your routines, to gather materials, to make a call on threatening weather, to start a fire, to haul the pee-bucket. Doing it in collaboration with a good partner is so much better.

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Field Notes is a monthly column highlighting the work of Upper Valley educators passionate about place-based environmental education. Do you have a story to share? Email us and let us know.