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Wisconsin Parent

Wisconsin: Nature's Playground

Sep 02, 2016 12:10AM ● By Lissa Carlson

Editor's note: We’re fortunate as residents of Wisconsin that so much of our state offers a natural playground for families. The team at Wisconsin Parent wants to offer you ideas and inspiration for spending time outdoors with kids. 

Enter Jan Wellik, a nature writer based in La Crosse. Wellik is executive director of a nature writing program for youth she founded in 2004 called Eco Expressions

Welcome to the first in our new monthly series from Wellik featuring inspiring outdoor art projects for young people, using simple materials that anyone can use. Each month, Wellik will explore a new project that can be implemented at a particular natural site in Wisconsin, but can be replicated in many other places. You can follow her and subscribe to her projects for families at Eco Art Wisconsin.

Wellik’s first entry in the series encourages parents to let go. So often, we try to create a craft or experience that we think should go a specific way, but Wellik says when we let go of our expectations, authentic learning happens. 

Come explore Wisconsin’s natural beauty and inspire new creativity in your family! 

Creating a Space for Trust

by Jan Wellik

​I was leading my little troop of preschool nature campers for an excursion in Goose Island County Park, located just outside La Crosse in Stoddard. I had a walking plan, but the boys (ages 4 and 5) had a better idea – to make a dam in the tiny man-made river in the park. They worked together good-naturedly for half an hour, collecting sticks and rocks, and being their own engineers, building a dam. It was so amazing, I even heard them humming, a natural instinct when having fun in a safe, relaxed, focused way! 

As a parent and  camp leader, I was in nirvana witnessing this natural unfolding – which, lo and behold - had nothing to do with me!

I know, bite your tongue, educators and parents are supposed to be in charge, right?!  We’re supposed to pass on knowledge, have everything under control, be consistent, follow a plan, and stick to the rules, right?  I think this is the greatest irony of education - that the most powerful learning might actually happen when we’re not looking, when we’re not trying to manipulate the process, and lead children to particular results. I ask myself, what are they actually learning when we always dictate the journey? That adults have all the answers, so why bother? Or that adults are looking for particular answers, not critical thinking, not creative thinking, and - most likely – not having fun!

Kids are not the only ones learning - I learned how important it is to create space, then let go and trust the situation.

Before you get started

  • When exploring outside, here are a few suggestions for engaging youth in authentic learning:
    • Watch what captivates your child's attention and encourage it! So often as parents/adults/educators we have our own agendas, our own busy plans, and grown-up ideas. No matter how well-intentioned they are, these plans can often backfire because we are not truly in the moment – we are pacing ourselves four steps ahead! 
    • We might find that true learning is limited in this type of learning environment. You might know this because it feels stunted, or lacks energy. You might be thinking, “Am I the only one enjoying this?!” Yes, you might be!!
    • Instead, try something new this week. Try introducing an idea, then step out of the way!  If it turns from a walk along the river into building a dam (as is the case for my example above), then so be it!   
    • Let the excitement be the teacher, not you!  Trust me, your kids will enjoy it more!

Jan Wellik is a writer, journalist, and college teacher leading nature writing workshops and retreats around the U.S. since 2004. And most importantly, she enjoys everyday adventures with her own child, age 4.