HomeIonE EducatorSheila Williams Ridge: Finding joy in nature

Sheila Williams Ridge: Finding joy in nature

Meet Sheila Williams Ridge, a member of the 2020 cohort of Institute on the Environment Educators. Director of the University of Minnesota’s Shirley G. Moore Lab School and an instructor both at UMN’s College of Education and Human Development and at Hamline University, Williams Ridge is passionate about encouraging nature-based play and education for children and adults alike. For her IonE Educators Fellowship project, she aims to improve her current course on nature-based early childhood education and to develop a second related course.

Why are you an advocate for outdoor learning opportunities? 

Because it sets the stage for every domain of learning – whether the art and beauty of a spider weaving a web; the social-emotional development that occurs through talking about a dead squirrel; the math involved in finding the tree that is just the right size for your hugs; the physical development in building a fort, stopping a sled, or catching a grasshopper; the patience in waiting for a seed to grow; the literacy skills learned through exploring a field guide; or the science learned through stomping in puddles. In the outdoors, you are immersed in a rich environment for learning in every domain. It feeds us, and through this study, a deep relationship of care and understanding can grow and hopefully lead to developing decision-makers who consider the impact of their actions on the world around them. It’s also so much fun!

In your opinion, what role does the environment and sustainability play in early childhood education? 

So much neurological development happens before age five. In that time, children learn to differentiate and they learn really basic attitudes and understandings about the world around them. I think for the health of the environment, for the health of human beings, we need children to see themselves as a part of nature, not apart from nature. I think that an important role of early childhood educators is to help children see that harms against the environment actually hurt people. You can’t hurt the environment without hurting people. 

How do you incorporate lessons on sustainability and sustainable practices into your curriculum?

We talk about things like resources. We take a sustainability tour of the Twin Cities campus and look at the solar panels in the garden by Carlson School of Management and the steam plant. So we talk about sustainability, but we also have really nice discussions about how to talk to children about such complex issues as sustainability, racial injustice, or death. How do you do that through nature? 

The role in early childhood is not to ignore that there are environmental disasters; we actually want to bring those to the forefront. But we don’t want that to be all that children know about nature. We want them to love nature. We want them to have hope and to view nature as this beautiful place where they can have all of these wonderful feelings. And then when they see that it is not being treated in that way, that they know how to take action, to put it back to a way that it should be. 

So we talk a lot about just helping children find joy. We talk about mental health and nature. We talk about play, and fun, and sledding, because we want children to have those feelings and enjoy outdoor activities. 

Tell us about the new course you’re working on as a part of your IonE Educator Fellowship.

Right now I have a course called Nature-Based Learning in Early Childhood, and it’s been really great. Last year we had about 35 students and this year we capped it at 55, so we wanted to think about ways to expand it. 

For the project, I’m thinking about what the next course should be. Right now, the course is focused on the birth-to-age-five group, so I’m thinking about how to expand that into kindergarten through third grade, or even up to fifth grade, or beyond. Also, some students are really interested in studying the developmental benefits and theories behind nature-based education while others are most interested in practical implications, like “How do I do this as a teacher?” Right now, I try to break the class up to cover both, but it would be really nice to be able to offer classes that focus on just one of those approaches. One could be on current research that supports nature-based learning as a really great teaching method and another could be a methods class focused on how to do nature-based learning.

Unfortunately, caring for the environment is often seen in partisan terms. How does that affect your teaching?

I feel like health and the environment should not be political issues, but they tend to be viewed that way. I tend to think more about policy than I do about political parties. Of the children and the teachers that I work with, I don’t all want them all to get jobs as environmentalists and I don’t want them to all be of the same political party, because what we need is for everybody to have a strong foundation of environmental literacy and to make appropriate decisions based on a sense of understanding, responsibility, and care for the planet and all of us living here. It would probably be more beneficial if some get jobs in finance or real estate and were of multiple political parties because those are the people needed to make decisions.

What do you wish more people understood about environmental education?

There’s that saying, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Working outside is not easy, but it is joyous. And that’s important. I want to have joy every day. The great thing about this class is that the students are learning about the environment, environmental education, and sustainability, and I think they’re also learning to find some joy in just being outdoors.

Education doesn’t have to be a lot of things. It can just be the relationship between you and nature or even between you and another person in nature, because that’s something really special to you.

What does being part of the IonE’s affiliate cohort mean to you?

For me, it’s really been about connecting with other people who are on a journey to the same place. We all bring different tools and we might be taking slightly different paths, but we all want to get to the same place. We want to live in an environment that is healthy, that is vibrant. That is diverse, both in what we have the ability to engage with, but also in the people who feel welcome and a part of nature, because everybody deserves that; everybody deserves to know how important they are in the cycle of nature.


About the IonE Educator Fellowship: IonE Educators are selected from University of Minnesota tenure-track faculty, instructional staff, and adjunct faculty, who have a special interest in effective pedagogy and curriculum development. During their 15-month fellowship period, Educators pursue individual projects aimed at improving existing courses or developing new courses and educational experiences for UMN college students, K-12 students, and the general public. All projects champion the need for diverse perspectives in solving complex sustainability challenges and are supported through a partnership with the Center for Educational Innovation.

Grace Abifarin is an IonE Communications Assistant and a junior at UMN pursuing majors in Marketing and Supply Chain and Operations Management with a minor in Leadership. 


Grace Abifarin is a senior majoring in Marketing and Supply Chain and Operations Management and minoring in Leadership at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.


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