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UMD adds second major for budding outdoor educators

Childhood Nature Studies aims to train students in disciplines beyond conservancy and environmental education.

Woman helps child walk up a fallen tree.
University of Minnesota Duluth senior Desi Hagenbeck helps a Wind Ridge Schoolhouse student walk up a fallen tree trunk Wednesday. Hagenbeck has taken several classes in UMD’s new Childhood Nature Studies program.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — A wooded area off West Fifth Street in Duluth has more than just trees.

Stand on top of a stump there, a preschooler in Desi Hagenbeck’s impromptu class at Wind Ridge Schoolhouse explained on Wednesday, and you might find yourself covered in honey. If you strike a cool pose there long enough – for a lifetime, even – you might turn to stone.

Woman and a child hug.
UMD graduate Lexi Bruno returns a hug from a Wind Ridge Schoolhouse student Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The student, who meandered away without answering follow-up questions from the News Tribune, is one of about a dozen enrolled at the Observation Hill neighborhood preschool, which emphasizes outdoor learning. Hagenbeck, meanwhile, has ticked several boxes required for a new major at the University of Minnesota Duluth for people who want to teach in nature.

Added last spring, the university’s “Childhood Nature Studies” program is designed to train students in disciplines beyond conservancy and environmental education. The new major requires students to take social work, psychology, and early childhood education classes, among others.

“We use the phrasing ‘childhood nature studies’ to reflect more of an integration of children in nature, children learning through nature, children as a part of nature,” said Julie Ernst, a professor in the university’s applied human sciences department, which houses the new major.


Proponents argue that outdoor learning has a host of academic and social-emotional benefits for students.
The Forest School in Duluth will include 4-year-olds and K-4. Marshall is currently a private school for grades 4-12.
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“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."

“Our program focuses on supporting children's holistic wellbeing through nature immersion experiences in a way that really draws from the best of a variety of professions. … It's really an interdisciplinary lens to how we can support children and families through nature.”

An existing “ Environmental and Outdoor Education ” major at UMD focuses more on recreation, physical education, techniques for leading nature trips, and so on. The newer one has a deliberate focus on early childhood education, Ernst said, and on working with social workers and psychologists.

Woman watches children playing in the woods.
Desi Hagenbeck watches as Wind Ridge Schoolhouse students play pirate Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Which is different from, but related to, what we were doing before, but just our intentional focus is on children and a bit more of a focus on supporting children’s learning and development as well as helping children grow up to be interested in the outdoors,” Ernst said as Wind Ridge students grabbed child-sized knapsacks from a row of hooks along one of the school’s walls before heading into the nearby woods for the day. “Future conservationists.”

Students at Wind Ridge on Wednesday were set to spend their entire day in nature, according to Laura Whittaker, the school’s director and co-teacher. Staff there often follow students’ lead, she said.

Woman plays with children in the woods.
Desi Hagenbeck plays with two Wind Ridge Schoolhouse students Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“As the children get interested around something they discover or something that comes up through their play,” Whittaker said, “our role as their teachers is to bring that forward and deepen their learning while they’re sparked in the play.”

Hagenbeck, for her part, is set to graduate this December with an Environmental and Outdoor Education degree. She enrolled at UMD in fall 2020 with a pair of associate degrees already in hand, and took three the classes and an internship that are required for the new Childhood Nature Studies degree while pursuing the longstanding Environmental and Outdoor Education one. Hagenbeck met other requirements for the new major, she said, when she completed her associates beforehand.

Woman and child walk in the woods.
Lexi Bruno follows a Wind Ridge Schoolhouse student on a woodland trail Wednesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“I worked as a preschool teacher in a traditional setting, and I was more drawn to the outdoors,” Hagenbeck said. “I had heard about this concept, and I was like, ‘I want to do that.’ So I came back to school to get more of the knowledge of how I could start that myself.”

She enrolled at UMD so she could learn how to start a nature preschool of her own, but said leaders at similar existing schools aren’t worried about her perhaps becoming a future competitor.


WindRidge 6
Wind Ridge Schoolhouse Director Laura Whittaker reads to students.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Everyone’s rooting for each other,” Hagenbeck said. “It’s a high-demand thing.”

Duluth, Ernst said, is a hot spot for nature preschools.

“With the growing national and international interest in connecting children with nature and the shortage of quality care for young children, it’s a fast-growing field.”

There’s also an emerging body of evidence that suggests that time in nature, nature-based learning, and unstructured play in nature can help a child’s well-being.

“Research suggests that when children are engaged in active, joyful and meaningful experiences and feel minimal stress, children are better able to attend to, interpret and learn from experiences,” Ernst told the News Tribune. “That is what we want graduates from this program to be able to do — provide those types of experiences for children.”

The free public event Oct. 15 will feature over 30 student vendors, as well as raffle prizes from local businesses and concessions.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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