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Spotlight Iowa City: Leaving the Earth a better place

BY HANNAH KRAMER | APRIL 02, 2010 7:30 AM

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Parents beware: Under Zac Wedemeyer’s watch, kids are encouraged to get wet and dirty as they traipse through mud and puddles to make breakthroughs about nature.

“I always felt as if my strengths would be to guide kids outdoors,” said Wedemeyer, the 33-year-old founder of the Taproot Nature Experience Organization, which is dedicated to strengthening people’s bond with nature. Since 2007, the organization has taught children and adults about how they fit into the world around them.

Zac’s forte is his ability to mentor children (with the “get dirty” encouragement and all). He said he feels most comfortable with them and enjoys their unsuppressed imaginations and love for nature.
It may have to do with the “childlike wonder for the natural world” that Taproot assistant teacher Michele Thompson sees in Wedemeyer. She said he is someone “who is willing to play.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in elementary education at the UI and working as an elementary-school teacher in Iowa City for seven years, Wedemeyer was looking for more. He regretted that he didn’t go into a field more focused on the outdoors and nature.

On a typical day, Wedemeyer’s 5-year-old daughter Iris and 2-year-old daughter Ani Willow — whom he and his wife plan to homeschool — spend time on the farm with their father. When wife Elesa Wedemeyer, 35, gets home from work, Zac Wedemeyer is off to spend his afternoons with the Taproot kids.

He hops into his Dodge Sprinter, license plate “LORAX” (It comes from a Dr. Seuss story that teaches the importance of taking care of the Earth.) and picks up participants at their elementary schools for an afternoon of adventuring. The kids, ages 5 to 12, visit such places as “Clamshellica,” near Iowa River Power, named by the kids because of the abundance of mussel shells that they can gather.

Taproot activities also extend to “Sprouts” — a similar program for preschool kids.

And this summer, Wedemeyer will pilot a two-week sleep-away camp at his farm near North English, Iowa. Leaders will be able to show kids what small, sustainable living is like.

Thompson, 27, said she has been lucky to experience so much real activity through Taproot. Something she enjoys about her job is “getting to work with [Zac], who has a childlike wonder for the natural world and is someone who is willing to play.”

Such “wonder” affects the lives of the children Wedemeyer teaches beyond daily exploration. He finds that a strong bond with nature improves kids’ behavior and focus.

“I noticed that a child with discipline problems, or learning problems, is always an incredibly different child outside the classroom,” he said. They “are just brilliant and easy and wonderful when they are in a natural setting.”

According to a 2004 report by the White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group, outdoor activities improve children’s focus, reduce bullying, and stimulate social interaction, among facilitating other cognitive development.

Taproot has noticeable effects on its leader, too, Elesa Wedemeyer said.

“He is so much happier as a human being doing what he loves,” she said. “Taproot is his dream job. … He loves every single day that he has.”

In the future, Wedemeyer hopes to open a full-time preschool in Iowa City with a mission similar to Taproot’s.

“[I hope to] fulfill my mission, as parent, husband, teache-r, and farmer. [I hope] to do my part so my kids have an Earth that is healthy and strong.”


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