EarthWalk Vermont teaches teens lessons in sustainable living


Elena Houriet

EarthWalkers fixing a bridge

EarthWalk Vermont, a nonprofit nature education organization located in the Winooski River Valley in Plainfield, Vermont, on the Goddard College campus, prides itself on being a leader in innovative learning.

Primarily focusing on young children and teens, EarthWalk works with youths to explore and respect their environment through self-led discovery. Simply guided by their mentors children are encouraged to problem solve and independently explore what they want to learn.

Through this perspective of teaching, children are motivated to think innovatively for themselves as they often do not in more structured and traditionally disciplined institutions of education.

EarthWalk was founded by Angella Gibbons in 2005. “EarthWalk’s nature mentoring approach draws from and is inspired by the practices and principles documented in ‘Coyote’s Guide to Connecting to Nature’ by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGowan,” said Gibbons.

EarthWalk Vermont is one of over 100 affiliated mentoring schools in the United States and around the world which are listed in Coyote’s Guide.

According to Gibbons, EarthWalk’s long-standing Mission “is to inspire and empower children, families and communities to reconnect with and care for one another and the Earth through long-term nature mentoring.”

To truly understand how EarthWalk operates, I was fortunate enough to spend a day romping around the woods with the Teen Land Project. This teen group focuses on trail maintenance and restoration for the paths which run through the woods on Goddard’s campus.

They also go on occasional field trips, including a visit to the Wild Heart Wellness Center, where they created a teaching herb garden.

The goal of the Teen Land Project is to bring teens ages 13-17 together to gather the skills, knowledge and experience needed to live sustainably with one another and the land while taking on projects to serve the greater community.
Starting at 9 a.m. once everyone had arrived on Nov. 6, the teens and their three mentors headed off into the woods for Teen Camp.

Set off of one of the main trails, the teens created a stable and waterproof structure complete with a fire pit and stump seats where they gathered for their morning meetings. This is when the mentors can check in with the teens to see how they are feeling and what they are grateful for that day. The teens are then briefed on their primary goal for the day, which during my visit was ripping apart an old rotting foot bridge to make room for a new one.

The teens are given a general plan for completing their goal; however, they are still given a tremendous amount of freedom to decide amongst themselves how exactly they want to go about achieving said goal.
EarthWalk mentors act as guiding support for the group rather than as traditional authority figures who generally operate on a step-by-step task-driven mentality.

One key aspect of the learning environment within the EarthWalk community that I noticed was the manner in which the mentors interact with the participants. They are respectful by putting themselves on the same level, and they openly lead the teens to ultimately lead themselves.

I could see this throughout their process of ripping out the old foot bridge as the mentors took a step back, and only interfered to offer advice. One mentor said, “Perhaps we should bend the old nails over as we remove the planks so no one gets cut. What do you think?”

For Aedan Bryant, a homeschooled EarthWalk teen, the weekly meetings fufill a variety of needs. “I look forward to EarthWalk every week, and honestly I wish it was more than just once a week,” he said, “EarthWalk gives me the chance to be with more people my own age without having to go to public school, and I am very appreciative of that. At EarthWalk we are free to be ourselves, and we learn about things that actually matter.”

Many of the teens have been involved in EarthWalk for several years. “This is my fourth year at EarthWalk,” said Sam Clark, “and I never get sick of it.”

Tuition for EarthWalk was $1,940 for 2015-16, and the program runs from September to June much like traditional school. There are scholarships available through EarthWalk’s financial aid assistance program for anyone who can’t afford the full tuition cost.

EarthWalk Vermont has many different groups, The Village School for young children ages 6-12, The Teen Land Project, Teen Wild Weekend, a variety of summer camps and even some adult programs.

You can find applications and additional information on their website