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Pandemic pushes Duluth educator to launch all-girls nature program

“What I really enjoy about the all-girl programming is the willingness and ability for the girls to fully express themselves and not conform to peer pressure of how they should be acting."

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Alyssa Nelson talks to her Hearty Girl day campers as they stop for a snack in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth Tuesday, July 13, 2021. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

A dragon, a cat and a dog hovered near Alyssa Nelson.

“Everyone follow Aurora,” Nelson said, as the 7-year-old barked and ran toward the trees.

Isabella “Isi” Grieger and Maya Bishu, both 7, held hands; and Cassidy Sharp, 6, danced a pirouette, as Nelson’s pack of girls and imagined creatures made their way to the Lowell Elementary School forest in Duluth.

After snacks of blueberries, strawberries, Goldfish and Oreos, the group of seven added fuel to the engine of their snake, climbed fallen logs and added seats to their fort.

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Isabella “Isi” Grieger, right, reacts as she watches her stump chair rolls out of control down a hill in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School during the Hearty Girl programming in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, as (from left) Eleanor Morrison, Matilda Spehar and Quinn Haselman look on. During educator Alyssa Nelson's Hearty Girl programming, the girls are able to fully immerse in a space and create a relationship with the ecosystem. Nelson's role is to eventually become a bystander, who ensures safety and helps with social, emotional conflict or confusion. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

This is Hearty Girl , Nelson’s year-round unstructured nature-based play program for girls and trans/gender nonconforming youth ages 5-10.

Twice a week, they show up with backpacks full of snacks, a water bottle, a journal and maybe a change of clothes before heading out for child-led play.

They learn about wildlife and plants. They greet forest fairies, feed baby dragons and catch grasshoppers while visiting Duluth go-tos — Chester, Lester, Hawk Ridge — and some further off the radar — a forest behind St. Scholastica, church greenspaces, a plot behind Forest Hill Cemetery.

Nature-based play can help with social-emotional development and motor skills, Nelson said, and each session uses the environment to learn math, science and art.

Applying children’s curiosities and needs in a forest is a great learning model, Nelson said, and creating an all-girls space removes potential distractions.

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Isabella “Isi” Grieger adds a “smokestack” to her fort as participants play in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Applying children’s curiosities and needs in a forest is a great learning model, Hearty Girl teacher Alyssa Nelson said, and creating an all-girls space removes potential distractions. Without knowing it, children fulfill gender roles at a young age. It’s important to have the skills for co-ed situations, but Nelson wants to create a different space with Hearty Girl. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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Without knowing it, children fulfill gender roles at a young age, Nelson said. It’s important to have the skills for co-ed situations, but Nelson wants to create a different space with Hearty Girl.

“What I really enjoy about the all-girl programming is the willingness and ability for the girls to fully express themselves and not conform to peer pressure of how they should be acting."

That all impacts us whether we’re aware of it or not, and those stereotypes are thrown out in an all-girl setting, Nelson said. “There’s no one really to impress, we’re just a bunch of goofballs.”

This format and the exclusively outdoors nature of the program prompted Dana Morrison to register her daughter, Eleanor. It creates an environment for Eleanor to thrive without societal influences and dominating ideas about gender roles, Morrison said.

And, the girls have to rely on their packs and their bodies to get through the day, she added.

For the Morrisons, time outdoors is healing and bonding, and Hearty Girl was and is important for Eleanor’s physical and mental health.

“Eleanor’s cup is just so full when she comes home from Hearty Girl. Yesterday, she said she had the best day of her life,” she said.

Morrison is impressed with Nelson’s gentle, patient and knowledgeable influence. She knows every bird, every plant, every tree, what their purpose is, and she communicates that everything is there for a reason and each element has a job.

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“We’re blessed to have Hearty Girl in our community,” Morrison said.

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Hearty Girl daycampers Aurora Braun, 7, left, and Maya Bishu, 7, play on a downed tree in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. Hearty Girl came at the right time for Aurora Braun, said her father, Mike. She needed an outlet and a way to socialize with peers during the pandemic. “I do consider myself an outdoorsman. … I’m going to be 40 this year. I still can’t move through the woods like she can at 7 years old," he said. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Hearty Girl came at the right time for Mike Braun’s daughter to have an outlet and a way to socialize with peers during the pandemic.

Braun has noticed a growing confidence in Aurora’s ability to work through interactions with her peers and her teacher — and her comfort in the natural environment.

“I do consider myself an outdoorsman. … I’m going to be 40 this year. I still can’t move through the woods like she can at 7 years old.”

Nelson has excelled at creating outdoor programming, and teaching children to build relationships with their surroundings is paramount. “I don’t think we’re separate from nature,” Braun said. “It’s critical that we all form connections to it, so that we can preserve the natural world and our own existence harmoniously.

“Taking care of nature also helps us take care of each other and our neighbors,” he added.

The next generation has to have a relationship with the earth. If you don’t have a relationship with something, you’re not going to want to protect it, Nelson said.

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Eleanor Morrison, 5, looks back as she holds hands with Alyssa Nelson while they walk into the woods behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, for Hearty Girl, a nature-based, all-girls program led by Nelson. Part of her mission is to build up women, she said, quoting a friend: “If we heal the women, we heal the world.” (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)


Hearty Girl was born out of the pandemic.

Unemployed from Hartley Nature Preschool during COVID-19 shutdowns, Nelson started working once a week with a former student. Word spread, and in May 2020, the program was in full swing. This work is not new, but this was an opportunity to safely carry programming to youth in need of engagement, Nelson said.

During a recent Tuesday, Isabella “Isi” Grieger picked up branches and walked them over to a fort. Quinn Haselman rubbed two sticks together while sitting on a log, and Cassidy Sharp rolled a stump down an incline.

Eleanor Morrison asked Nelson to lift her up on the log. Nelson encouraged her to find a way up on her own, directing her to watch her peers. Moments later, Eleanor made it.

“When you figure something out on your own, it feels 100 times better,” Nelson later told the News Tribune.

It takes about an hour for the girls to get fully immersed in play. Then, Nelson’s job is to step back, listen and help if there is a social emotional need, conflict or confusion.

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Matilda Spehar, 7, balances on a downed tree as Hearty Girl participants play in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. After snacks of blueberries, strawberries, Goldfish and Oreos, the group of seven added fuel to the engine of their snake, climbed fallen logs and added seats to their fort. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

At one point, Matilda Spehar stood alone.

“I see you have your arms crossed,” Nelson stated.

After some talk identifying feelings and ways of asserting communication, Nelson made an announcement: “We all have needs. It’s our job to communicate those to people.

“We’re all in charge of our own imagination, we get to decide how we want to play.”

The conflicts Nelson sees boil down to misunderstanding, not communicating enough, making assumptions or not feeling heard — it’s the same for adults, she said.

Nelson tries to help the girls acknowledge a misunderstanding and the feelings that follow, to ask more questions for clarity and vocally assert what they want.

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From left, Maya Bishu, 7, Quinn Haselman, 7, and Isabella “Isi” Grieger make improvements to their fort in the forest behind Lowell Elementary School in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021, during Hearty Girl programming. They also greet forest fairies, feed baby dragons and catch grasshoppers while visiting Duluth go-tos — Chester, Lester, Hawk Ridge — and some further off the radar — a forest behind St. Scholastica, church greenspaces, a plot behind Forest Hill Cemetery. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Later in the forest, the girls tied pieces of fabric onto trees and branches around the greenspace, creating the limitations of the play area. This helps them practice setting and respecting boundaries, seen and unseen; and it allows them some control.

“Kids spend their whole lives not having any control for most of it. As an educator and adult, any time you can give a child something to control by choice that’s creating resilient, strong kids,” she said.

The shutdown provided an opportunity to operate Hearty Girl this past year because the girls weren’t in school and they needed an outlet, education and peer connection. Nelson is now considering next steps in an afterschool or summer-only format, partnering with another organization and launching an all-boys class herself. “Boys, they need this, as well, in a very deep way,” she said.

Nelson would be “devastated” if Hearty Girl ended after a year, but she is proud of the work she feels is fulfilling her mission to build women up, she said, quoting a friend:

“If we heal the women, we heal the world.”

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Matilda Spehar, 7, feeds ferns to the snake’s mouth as she makes up a fantasy world in the woods behind Lowell Elementary School during Hearty Girl programming in Duluth on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The next generation has to have a relationship with the earth. If you don’t have a relationship with something, you’re not going to want to protect it, said Hearty Girl teacher Alyssa Nelson. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

To learn more

For more information on the Hearty Girl program, go to heartygirlflies.com/home-2 .

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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