Eliza Minucci is a humble yet powerful force in the movement to get kids outdoors and learning through play in nature. As an educator, consultant, speaker, and professional development provider, she believes, “education is at its best when teachers are empowered to teach through their passions, to develop themes and content, to learn and grow alongside their students.” She says, “Taking their students outside has offered many teachers the chance to grow in their profession, to rediscover joy in their careers, and to connect more deeply with their students.”
A New Hampshire native, Eliza grew up knowing she wanted to one day be a teacher, “I wanted to be a teacher since my first day of first grade. I had, most likely, the best first-grade teacher on the planet. Both my parents were teachers. Even my great-grandmother taught at a one-room school in the Northeast Kingdom.”
Eliza has taught in a variety of places, from urban Chicago to coastal Mexico, from Seattle neighborhoods to an off-grid bush-village Alaska. “Teaching in all these settings I learned that where I felt most connected to my community and my students was where I was most connected to the land. I felt the most grounded, and the most authentic when I was splitting wood, hauling water, collecting berries, and learning and working in the woods.”
When Eliza ultimately settled in Vermont and began teaching kindergarten at the Ottaquechee School she felt compelled to give her students a foundational connection to nature. “It was a gift that could not be taken away, and as it had done for me, it would accompany them to the farthest corners of the earth, but also home to their backyard.”
Soon after she began teaching in Vermont, Eliza participated in the Trail to Every Classroom program, sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “From this program, I developed a program I called KinderGuiding,” Eliza remembers. “KinderGuiding involved all of the kindergartners in my school. We partnered with local retirees and had three nature-based outings together culminating in a mile-long hike together on the Appalachian Trail. Through this experience, I developed my comfort leading students in wild spaces and saw the light in their eyes when we went to the woods.”
Then, inspired by, School’s Out, a documentary about Forest Kindergartens in Switzerland, and encouraged by principal, Amos Kornfeld, Eliza enlisted a former intern, Meg Teachout, to help her develop a more frequent outdoor program for her kindergarteners. After attending a course at Antioch University New England and receiving funding from the Byrne Foundation and the Wellborn Ecology Fund, Eliza and Meg embarked on their first year of ForestKinder—one day every week in the woods.
“My teaching has always been driven by a desire to cultivate and honor the independence and confidence of my young students. As a kindergarten teacher, I believed my students should be coming to know school as a place they belonged, where we knew each other well, recognized our strengths and tried new things together. Fundamentally, I believe the education of young children should first be characterized by joy.”
These days, Eliza is taking some time away from teaching to raise her two young sons. She also runs ForestKinder, a not-for-profit initiative aimed at providing professional development to would be outdoor educators. She is, “happily up to [her] ears in work helping other teachers develop committed outdoor programming in their public-school classrooms.” ForestKinder facilitates professional learning communities of teachers looking to root their teaching practice in place outdoors. Eliza says, “In our first three years we’ve worked with over 30 educators around the Upper Valley. Our alumni lead forest day programs for preschool through fifth grade in more than ten Upper Valley public schools.”