When I first stepped onto the Triangle Land Conservancy property where Learning Outside leads entirely outdoor education for children, I knew I wanted to create a partnership with Townsend Bertram & Company. We share the same mission statement of creating more stewards of the earth to instill a lifelong love of the natural world in generations to come. When co-founder Scott Bertram died in July of 2017, we founded the Scott B scholarship fund that provides funds for underprivileged children to attend Learning Outside programs. We are thrilled to feature this interview with founder of Learning Outside, Wendy Banning to share the story of this local organization that is near and dear to our hearts.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What inspires you? What drives you? What brings you joy?
Nature inspires me. Children inspire me. And spending time with children in nature drives me. A sunny day, a star-filled sky, sunrises, sunsets, long walks on the beach or in the woods and time with family all bring me joy.
What inspired you to start Learning Outside?
So many things! It was a lifetime spent outdoors. It was parents who loved nature and a father who made every moment outdoors a sweet adventure. It was my many years teaching in public schools and finding ways to integrate nature into my work with children of all ages. It was co-founding a school that fully included nature and witnessing, daily, the positive outcome that time in nature has on children; their sense of self and their learning. It was co-writing my book, “Lens on Outdoor Learning” to encourage more teachers to use the natural world in their teaching. It was my work as an outdoor learning consultant supporting and training teachers around ways to incorporate nature into their work with children. It was our culture’s shift away from providing children with the time they need outside playing, learning, moving, exploring and making discoveries. It was my understanding of nature as an essential space for children’s healthy growth and development and a space where all children thrive and where all children experience success. And it was because I know that we all protect the spaces we love and that to grow into tomorrow’s needed stewards of our wild spaces, today’s children need time, experiences and a chance to fall in love with nature. Learning Outside is a place where children can be children and where they can fully connect and fall in love with the natural world as their forever home.
What is Learning Outside's mission? What is your personal life mission? How do they influence one another?
“Learning Outside’s mission is to provide children with quality outdoor experiences that enhance their lives and learning, instill a love of the natural world and promote lifelong stewardship. Key to our mission is serving individuals who do not have ready access to quality outdoor learning experiences.”
My personal life mission is to use my energies to try to make a positive difference in whatever way I can and that’s what Learning Outside is all about. It is rooted in making a positive difference for children now as well as for their futures.
How do you incorporate play into your life to create a healthy work/life balance?
I love my work and often find that work and personal life commingle, blurring whatever line exists in between. Enter family! Enter a wonderful pup named Camden! Yoga! Photography! Art-making! Friends! Birds! A garden! Music! Books! Each of these invites me to play outside of work. I walk in the woods with my dog, do yoga, spend time with my three adventurous, amazingly fun adult kids, and visit with friends. And I love to travel and see new beautiful places and have shiny new adventures!
What are some of the obstacles you have overcome to pursue this dream?
Actualizing Learning Outside has been a little like building a campfire. It started as just a tiny sweet spark; an idea, a hope. With time and attention, that spark grew strong enough to catch flame. The time since has been spent feeding that flame, expanding its potential to grow into the sweet, amazing fire we were hoping to create; one that invites others to gather around it, to enjoy its warmth and to participate in keeping it bright, strong and growing. This project has been about exploring and realizing possibilities. It still is! Whatever obstacles were encountered on this journey haven’t actually felt like obstacles as much as just reminders that dreams call upon us to stay open and to keep thinking creatively.
What are you excited about right now?
I’m excited about Meadow Lark. It’s our big annual event that invites everyone in the community to play outdoors at the site while also supporting our scholarship fund. I’m excited about our summer camps; 10 back-to-back weeks of nature-based experiences that impact so many children. I’m excited about the coming year when youngsters we’ve worked with this past year will return, joined by new youngsters that we look forward to meeting. And I’m excited about the many site enhancement projects we’re currently working on; our new learning barn, our yurt, archery alley, our current Learning Garden expansion and more.
What piece of advice do you have for outdoor enthusiasts with entrepreneurial spirits?
Do your research. Stretch yourself beyond conventional approaches or simple answers because, more often than not, those don’t exist. When/if you dive into the waters, do it with your goal and purpose anchored, your spirit grounded, your energies committed and your heart and mind open for the journey ahead because your journey will never be exactly how you had it all planned. Know that there will be times when you second-guess yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail, because not trying is way worse than failing. And if you are afraid to try, get over it, TRY anyway. Our world depends on people trying.
What would you have done differently when you started your nonprofit if you knew then what you know now?
Hard question to answer because it invites one to sift through the past looking for mistakes, regrets, and/or forks in the road not taken. Projects don’t come tidily packaged. They’re organic; continually evolving. They call upon us to grow with them and through them. I have nothing I wish I could redo or do differently. This project has been a journey; it reflects our capacity, as human beings, to keep growing, to assimilate new information, to continually move forward and to dig deep. And, throughout this journey, Learning Outside’s lighthouse has remained steady and fixed, pointing the way.
What’s your favorite product and why?
Yikes, I have too many! Working outdoors year-round, in all kinds of weather, creates a deep appreciation for quality gear. For jackets that keep you warm and dry. For rain pants that do the same. For layers you can add and peel off, as needed, throughout the seasons. For good trail footwear you can wear in the hot summer as well as footwear that keeps your feet dry, even in a downpour, and warm, even on cold winter days. For waterproof gloves that still allow you the maneuverability to assist youngsters with those tricky zippers. For backpacks that hold all of your teaching trail gear, that keep books and materials dry, that accommodate your first aid kit, your toileting bag, a ground blanket for youngsters, your trail saw, knife, fire making kit, snack, water bottle, backup water bottle for children who run-out, rope and more. And, in my case, I also carry an extra pouch to hold my trail notebook and a pen to write down children’s ideas and things they’re wondering about, my walkie-talkie, hand sanitizer and anything else I need immediate access to. I need and appreciate all of my gear!