Somewhere along the Superior Hiking Trail there is an ice cream stand in the crook of a tree. There are over-ripe Juneberries that toddler fingers can’t resist plucking. There is a hospital where a person can be seen for a dragon-related injury.
(Treatment seems to be a poke in the ear and a few pushes on a tummy.)
This area deep in the woods is the playground for the 10-or-so toddlers attending Wind Ridge Schoolhouse, a relatively new nature-based preschool centrally located in Duluth. At the heart of it is Laura Whittaker, 31, who is hands-on with teaching and hands-off with play. She’s the kind of person who might say to a troop of kiddos, “We’re gonna rigga-jig-jig” as they file along down a dirt path. Outdoor play happens daily - even if it’s in five-minute increments on the coldest of days.
“Children play with natural materials and loose parts,” Whittaker said on a hot day in August as the group took advantage of the shade of the woods. “I give them lots of freedom and space to play. They get to have that old-fashioned childhood.”
This is the kind of experience area parents want for their children, Whittaker said. She and the other nature-based preschools like Hartley Nature Preschool, Secret Forest Playschool and Little Barnyard Preschool - which are part of the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative - are very popular. Whittaker’s school, which is at capacity, doesn’t have a waiting list, she said. When there is an opening, which hasn’t happened yet since she opened in December 2014, she will post it to the Wind Ridge Schoolhouse Facebook page, and interested parents can fill out an application.
Whittaker was nominated for “20 Under 40” by Angela Braud, a friend made a few years ago in a prenatal yoga class. Braud said Whittaker is committed to promoting outdoor preschools and referred to her as a “baby whisperer” in her nomination.
“She’s outstanding with children,” Braud said. “Everything that comes out of her mouth is positive reinforcement. She lives that way. What’s so engaging about her is the way she cares for not only her own children, but other people’s children.”
Whittaker is a native Duluthian who grew up like this: outside and surrounded by kids. Her first job was at Chester Bowl, where she operated the ski lift and was a camp counselor. She graduated from Duluth East, then Gustavus Adolphus before returning to the College of St. Scholastica for grad school.
Whenever she visited a classroom during her training, she had the same thought:
“These kids need to just be outside,” she said.
So, at her school, as much time as possible is spent in the wide open: The kids are dropped off between 7 and 8:30 a.m. Circle time is followed by a breakfast snack at the picnic table. By 10 a.m., the crew segues into free play, which Whittaker watches unfold without much intervention - just offering a cuddle or play cue when necessary.
“The most important growth happens when you’re on the perimeter,” she said.
Lunch is followed by story time, which is followed by a nap - the one thing that always happens inside. There is quiet play as the kids wake, followed by snack-time, then pickup is at 4:30 p.m.
Alex Bastien, a friend who grew up with Whittaker, said he has noticed increased imaginative play from his 3-year-old since she started going to the schoolhouse. His daughter recently turned a fallen tree at the cabin into a bus stop, Bastien said.
“Laura is so great with those kids,” he said. “When we drop our daughter off in the morning, it’s just perfect. She’s going to have a great day. It’s such a good feeling of safeness. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Operating her own preschool wasn’t Whittaker’s original plan.
“I was pre-law,” she said. “I realized my vocation and passion and what I’m good at could all work together.”
Whittaker and her husband, Matt, a teacher at Duluth Marshall who used his summer break to work on construction updates at the schoolhouse, have two children. Alden, 5, runs through the woods with the crew. Huxley, 2½, goes along occasionally.
During a recent visit, the kids climbed trees and sprinted along well-worn paths and rustic wood-beam bridges. They banged sticks against trunks and turned the surface of a boulder into a makeshift hospital where a horse would not be denied service and where a 4-year-old was suffering from a dragon fire burn.
Two kids greeted visitors by dropping into nap poses in a patch of green and declaring it nighttime. They passed along factoids, including who is a half-year older than whom.
“I love ice cream,” a 4-year-old said, unprompted, then named three key flavors before also admitting she was a fan of cucumbers. When two boys climbed into a tree, Whittaker called to them to listen to their bodies to determine how high they could go.
“I believe in this work so much for the power it will have in their lives,” she said. “They’re learning to have a love of place. This fosters a connection with the earth. They will be good advocates. They will have a place to seek calm in the world.”
And when the last of the visitors turned to go, Whittaker led the kids in a tiny-voice chorus:
“May the longtime sun shine upon you. …”
Occupation: Director and teacher at Wind Ridge Schoolhouse
What you actually do: I spend my days with preschoolers as they play, learn and explore in nature. There is a lot of singing, conflict resolution, snack preparation, talking about feelings, mitten tucking, hugging and stick negotiating. I spend my after bedtimes and weekends keeping up with the business side of things, planning curriculum and corresponding.
Years in your job: I have been teaching for five years and opened Wind Ridge Schoolhouse in December.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., and a master’s degree in teaching from the College of St. Scholastica.
Family: Husband, Matt; two boys, Alden, 5, and Huxley, 2½; dogs, Sage and Percy; rabbit, Pear the Hare; and the Schoolhouse hens
Community involvement: I am a part of the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative, a group of educators that incorporate nature play. We work together to support each other’s programs, raise awareness about nature play and advocate for nature play in our community. My family is busy in lots of the great activities the Duluth community offers.
What do you like most about the Northland? I love that there is wilderness right in the city.
Favorite place in the Twin Ports? It depends on the season: Park Point in the summer, Chester Bowl in the fall, the trails near Enger Park in the winter and Lester Park in the spring.
What keeps you here? I can't imagine living anywhere else. I am disoriented away from Lake Superior and the Northwoods.
What do you do in your free time? I don’t have much free time right now, but I have lots of plans for it when I do.
How can the Northland retain younger people? Continue to evolve and innovate in our schools so young families are drawn to Duluth and stay here because their children are receiving a high-quality, enjoyable education.
Who has been the most influential person in your life? My husband, Matt. He works harder than anyone I have ever met, is creative and smart, loves deeply and leads quietly.
What are you most passionate about? I have built my career around what I am most passionate about: childhood is the time when a person is made, and today many childhoods are bombarded by the pressures of our society. Connecting a child with nature lets the child move through his or her own development in a way that builds the traits of a successful learner and community member. Through nature play, children develop resilience, persistence, creativity, self-regulation, confidence, and grow their social self; these are traits that lead to a fulfilling life. Plus, creating an opportunity for a young child to know and love a natural place can lead to a lifelong commitment to preserving the environment and serve as a respite from the stresses of life.
What goals have you set for the next 5-10 years? I want to help grow the sense of neighborhood where we live in Observation Hill. I hope Wind Ridge Schoolhouse can be a part of doing that by being a place where neighborhood children can connect and play in the woods near their homes. I want to slow the pace of my life so I can deepen friendships, interconnect with other families and soak up my sons' childhoods. Along with the Duluth Nature Play Collaborative, I would like to see Duluth parks focus more on nature play and less on installed playground equipment, help other schools and childcare settings incorporate nature play in their programs, and encourage more families to connect their children with wild places. I also want to strengthen my teaching practice and gain more knowledge of the plants, animals, insects and geology my students and I hike by every day.