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TAWNIE WILSON | SBJ

A Conversation With ... Laura Stroup

Founder and Director, Firefly Nature School LLC and School of the Wild

Posted online

Tell me about your background and how that led you to your work now.
I have a degree in animal ecology from Iowa State University. My emphasis was on natural resources education. When I graduated, I worked at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa. My husband and I moved down here, and I worked at Wonders of Wildlife as an educator. I taught middle school and upper school science at the Summit (Preparatory School) for 10 years. I helped found a private independent school called U School, which I worked at for a couple of years, and then we adopted our third child and I stayed home after that. After that is when I started our nature study curriculum. This was a perfect opportunity to do so when I was staying home, homeschooling our kids. That was in 2018. During the time when I was teaching, I had come across the idea of outdoor school. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time to actually start a nature school. Fall of 2020 is when we started School of the Wild.

Nature preschools have been growing in popularity. In 2017, there were 275 nature preschools in the U.S., according to the Natural Start Alliance, and by 2020, there were 585 programs. What’s behind the growth?
Preschools are kind of the go-to age group for nature schools. Because my kids were older when we started School of the Wild, I could see that there was great benefit in being in nature for all ages. We serve ages 4 to 15 here. Not only is nature your classroom; you can interact with it as you’re studying it. You’ll never run out of things to learn because nature inspires curiosity and inspires creativity. The sky’s the limit, literally and figuratively. Kids just ask questions all day. I feel like it builds confidence in students. They try things they may not have tried before, not at our insistence but of their own volition. They see other people walking across a log you have to balance off. You can watch the wheels turning; they assess risk. There’s also adversity to deal with. Not every day is … sunny, beautiful weather. We are out in the rain all day or in very cold temperatures. By the end of the day, you’re like, wow, I didn’t think I could do that, but now I’ve done it.

Your nature school and curriculum are tailored toward homeschool students. That’s a growing segment of kids in K-12. The National Home Education Research Institute reports there are 3.1 million homeschool students, which is about 6% of school kids. That was 3% or 4% pre-pandemic. What have you seen locally in the size of the homeschool population?
During the pandemic, more students were homeschooled around the area. Once the opportunity for kids to go back to school felt safer for parents, a lot of those kids that shifted to homeschool just for the pandemic, I think a lot of them have returned to regular school. But I do also feel the number of homeschoolers is growing for various reasons. We started with 20 students our first year. Our second year we probably doubled that because we added an extra day of nature school because we had a lot of interest. Flash forward to now; we have over 100 students that we serve on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We have a waiting list that grows pretty much every week. The desire is there for families to have their kids out in nature and learning and playing and exploring.

Where do you host the School of the Wild?
Lovett Pinetum [in Strafford] is privately owned. It is an arboretum dedicated to pine species. They plant different pines - they’re a giant nursery for those trees. It’s over 100 acres. We rent from them, and they allow us to be out here for our campus for nature school.

What kind of nature curriculum do you offer? And is that being used outside of this region?
For written nature studies and for the book [“Nature School: Lessons and Activities to Inspire Children’s Love for Everything Wild”], we try to hit a worldwide audience just because people are homeschooling all over the world, and because they’re available online, you can get them easily from anywhere. We do have customers in 30 different countries around the world. The nature studies that I write are designed to get people outdoors. You can study nature at the table reading books, and that’s one way to do it and that’s a component of the nature studies that I write, but I also try to have an activity in there where you need to go outside and look at a type of plant or maybe a specific animal or a specific ecosystem. The book is the same way. We wrote it with a global perspective, so there’s forest, grasslands, wetlands, desert and seashore ecosystems.

What’s the cost for the nature studies curriculum and School of the Wild?
We have a subscription nature study magazine that is around $10 a month and that has a different topic each month. I work with two other ladies, one in Kansas City area and one in Florida, and we work together to do that each month. Just a single nature study is $4. A full day of nature school is $155 a month per student, and then there’s a 10% sibling discount.

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