An Eden Prairie teacher has won the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Cedar Ridge Elementary kindergarten teacher Jen Heyer received the award for her Wilderness Wednesdays program, which introduces her students to learning outdoors and incorporates nature into daily lessons. She will receive $2,500 to go toward enhancing the program and $2,500 toward her own professional development.
“It’s pretty amazing,” she told Eden Prairie News. “Four years ago when I started the program, it was really just to get kids outside more. I didn’t have a bigger plan.”
Heyer started Wilderness Wednesdays when she realized that some of her students didn’t even want their bare feet to touch the ground, she said. She began leading them on short adventures by the forest and creek behind Cedar Ridge Elementary and added science, reading and math lessons to their explorations. Play-based learning is an important part of education, she said.
She’s observed that students who often need help with their learning behaviors are more engaged with lessons when they’re outside, and quiet activities like “Sit Spot,” when kids must observe the world around them without speaking, are more successful than quiet activities indoors. Her students help each other more readily too, Heyer said, and will help each other learn to spell while running to complete a scavenger hunt for hidden stuffed animals in a clearing.
As her students embraced their outdoor lessons, Heyer sought out support from her community. The Cedar Ridge Parent Teacher Organization has been instrumental in finding resources for her programs, she said, as have class parents, who give their time and resources to their children’s learning. One family member is currently raising minnows for a lesson on wildlife, she said.
Organizations and businesses in the wider community have also contributed to Heyer’s award-winning program. The Eden Prairie Home Depot has donated materials like rakes and bird feeders, a local Scouts BSA troop can earn badges by volunteering for the program, and guests from the Riley Purgatory Bluff Creek Watershed District have led lessons on water systems for Heyer’s curious kindergartners.
Wilderness Wednesday has expanded at Eden Prairie elementary schools: another Cedar Ridge classroom and Prairie View and Eden Lake now have their own versions, and teachers from Minnetonka and Jordan districts have come to observe Heyer’s natural classroom.