Discovering nature and creating bonds at Taproot

Taproot Nature Experience began in 2007 and the program has developed a focus on unstructured activities that allow kids to make their own decisions in an outdoor setting.

Photo by Fenna Semken
Photo by Fenna Semken

Founder and lead teacher Zac Wedemeyer looked back on life before Taproot, “I used to be a teacher, I wasn’t really made for teaching inside and I was thinking of a way to use my way of love for teaching children and being in nature to make something where I could teach, and enjoy it and be outside.”

“Over the summer of 2007, my wife Elesa and I put the basic idea together and put out the word to the families of former students. People signed their kids up right away, and we knew we had something to work with,” he said.

Today dozens of elementary age kids visit Taproot each week and about 20 kids aged three to five join a morning program for preschoolers.

The experience is unique to the Iowa City area where Wedemeyer said they found immediate support for the program.

“We are just in Iowa City and surrounding areas, we’ve thought of and people have encouraged us to expand to other towns. I think it should happen in other towns but it should happen from people in those towns,” Wedemeyer said, “Iowa City is a perfect community for Taproot. It has a population of thoughtful and educated people who care deeply about their children and understand the value of self-guided time in nature, but at the same time they work hard and are very busy, and some of them worry that their kids don’t get outside enough.”

Photo by Fenna Semken
Photo by Fenna Semken

This lack of outdoor time is exactly what Taproot is designed to remedy, giving kids time in nature as they make their own choices.

“Taproot is a nature program, but one of our main goals is to allow kids unstructured play time in natural settings like this, specifically in contact with nature, and it fills a role for a lot of people that people my age or older would have just been doing on our own, just going outside and playing,” Wedemeyer said. “Many kids don’t get a chance to do that because of various reasons, and this is a way to structure in unstructured time to have direct contact with nature.”

The kids from Taproot are on board with Wedemeyer’s beliefs in the programs goals. 13-year-old Everly Eldeen enjoys getting the chance to spend time outside.

“I don’t really get a chance to go outdoors all the time, and it’s nice to be able to go to all these locations and hang out with the kids,” Eldeen said. “I have been at Taproot for a really long time, since I was six years old, so for about seven years, and I love being outside and being able to catch stuff and they have the materials, so it’s great.”

Photo by Fenna Semken
Photo by Fenna Semken

Other than allowing kids to have fun in nature, Taproot offers many other benefits to a young child’s lifestyle.

“I think it’s important for their physical health, being outdoors and getting exercise. One of the huge problems in our society is sedentary lifestyles that cause kids to be overweight,” Wedemeyer said. “Contact with nature has so many benefits, it is kind of a necessity like good rest and good food. Being in check with the earth is something we are built to do, and when kids are separated from soil and water and animals and the feeling that they are a part of nature, it causes various emotional problems.”

Photo by Fenna Semken
Photo by Fenna Semken

Taproot teacher Laura Max is a strong believer in the benefits of this unstructured time outside.

“[It’s important for the kids to get out here] to learn to love it, and there are so many structured activities that kids already do, so it’s nice to have some time where they don’t have adults just telling them this is what they need to do now, and they can kind of go with what they are more interested in and find things to play with and explore,” Max said.

Assistant Director Michele Thompson believes that Taproot’s mission is extremely important.

“Kids [need to] have a space where they can be free and make decisions and learn from natural consequences and their own interactions with the earth and each other, I mean it’s very unstructured. They are figuring things out on their own and we only intervene when they need help,” Thompson said. “I think that humans have an innate connection with nature and it’s very important as human beings to maintain that connection and be outside as much as possible, I think it’s the secret to happiness.”

Wedemeyer agreed that kids need time outside to be happier.

“There are studies that show that kids do better on task, are better behaved and are more focused when they have time in nature, and less specifically, we hear from parents all the time that there kids are just happier after spending time outside. This setting really gives kids a lot of practice in problem solving because there’s no set of rules or procedures, so they figure it out by themselves and guide themselves and gain control of their own bodies,” Wedemeyer said. “They also gain a tremendous amount about how to get along with each other, the only overarching rule is we use something called unconditional positive regard and we make a big deal about [it], which is regarding everyone with respect and friendliness, and that works almost all the time, and when it doesn’t they get practice in conflict.”

Though there are many reasons why Taproot is an important program for Iowa City, the kids that participate are more focused on the aspect of fun.

“[My favorite part is] bones because you get to keep them, I have found a lot. You also get to play with animals and I love animals and bones,” said James Miller.

Not only can the kids find bones but they can catch animals.

“[My favorite part is] catching stuff, and sometimes climbing trees if I can, because I like to look at what I catch and catching them for other kids,” said Gavin Wedemeyer.

Finding fish is another part that brings happiness to the kids like Evan Merrill who likes to “find all the fish and play with them and release them.”

Photo by Fenna Semken
Photo by Fenna Semken

While many of the children enjoy catching and observing animals, Mira Grey Cunning believes that another great part about Taproot is the bonds created.

“Well, I like playing with kids and making new friends, I like going out in nature and I love having fun. I’ve been coming here since I was three and I’m seven years old,” Grey Cunning said.

This enthusiasm for nature is present throughout all the kids and staff as they discover nature together.

“I love being around the kids and how enthusiastic they get for different things outside, and also I think you notice how younger kids look at things a lot closer and I noticed that, since I started working here, I notice things a lot closer too,” Max said. “I feel like I have learned to appreciate nature more by working here, even though I already love to be outside and be in nature, but it has made it even better.”

Discovery in nature is a large part of Taproot, and Thompson enjoys being able to experience and uncover different aspects of the world with the children.

“Being able to tune in to all of the subtle and large patterns that we encounter each day, the fact that we are exposed to everything in full circle and we get to celebrate and be a part of those repeated patterns,” Thompson said. “All the things that we get to do [help us] notice those patterns, and experiencing that with the kids [is my favorite]. As soon as one thing ends, another thing begins, it’s always changing.”

Taproot is comprised of learning and having fun in nature, and Wedemeyer’s goals are to be able to have kids always be able to do just as much as possible.

“I have a lot of favorites, such as being here at Turkey Creek on a warm day with lots of animals around and the kids are in a good mood,” Wedemeyer said. “When the teachers are in the background role, that is the ideal. It’s almost like it’s unsupervised, they [young people] are doing what they want to do and they are getting along, every one of them is engaged in something and the teachers really just get to play and be a support role and that is my favorite part about Taproot.”

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