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Ida Rotto + Red Oak Outdoor School

By Margaret Mullin | Summer 2024 Inspire(d)

Ida Rotto helps kids get connected with the natural world, themselves, and each other.

Whether it’s making camouflage t-shirts with walnut dye, harvesting Virginia Waterleaf to eat for lunch, singing, or starting a fire with friction, you can find Ida Rotto out in the country, teaching kids how to slow to the speed of nature and exist in relation to one another and the land. 

This is Red Oak Outdoor School, where learning on the move is the norm. The location changes based on things like the weather, bird migratory patterns, and the acorn harvest, because as the seasons ebb and flow, Ida teaches us to move with them. Snowy winters, spring hail, summer heat, and autumnal chills are not barriers to learning – they are defining features of Ida’s work, where nature and the land are the principal teacher.

Red Oak Outdoor school students by a tree
Photo courtesy Red Oak School
“Ida is kind-hearted, silly, and able to do magic with words and turn them into songs that will never leave your heart. Her ability to drop down to see the small wonders of the land and hold the big picture of what is happening on the landscape let me know that my children would not only be safe while in her care but taught how to see the world in a new way. We will be forever grateful for what Ida has brought to our family.” -Stephanie Elliott, parent

Ida launched the outdoor school’s first program in 2019. Rooted in the natural world, the mission statement is “supporting resilience in youth through connection to self, each other and the natural world.” 

“I have always, throughout my life, had a strong draw towards the natural world, and also towards personal transformation journeys. As a kid I got lots of time outside to develop those relationships,” says Ida, who grew up along Canoe Creek in rural Decorah closely connected to the world around her.

Ida’s early life was a collage of home and public schooling, apprenticeships and self-directed learning, and she says the trust and respect given by her family and community helped her find her own callings. “And in a big way, I feel like wow, I’m getting to do the things I just love and feel inspired by,” Ida says with her trademark enthusiasm. “Getting to support young people in finding their own sense of respect and trust in themselves, and trust that they belong in the natural world and within a supportive community is really powerful.” 

outdoor cooking
Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School
“Ida is a heartfelt guide into the majestic story of the outdoors. She embodies genuine connection with the non-human relatives with whom we share this wonderful planet. Song, wonder, and tangible knowledge are her whisper into the spectacular realm of the natural world.” – Eden Kelner, parent

Warm emails go out to parents and caregivers, encouraging adults and children alike to ask, “where does the robin sleep at night?” and “what do the oaks need to grow tall and strong?” and “what do we need to grow tall and strong?” A big part of the work is building relationships and strong connections among the kids. It is foundational to the learning itself. This sense of relationship extends beyond the humankind as well.

Mr. Whitewing is a beloved member of Red Oak Outdoor School. He is a robin that has returned each year, recognizable by a white patch on his wing that makes him stand out. He helps Ida teach kids how to shift to an owl’s vision, incorporating a more expansive view, and moving with awareness of our impact on the world around us.

weaving with natural materials
A weaving project. / Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School

“When you build relationships with not only the humans around you but all of the animals and plants and other life, and really have a sense of care and intimacy and family with them, then there’s no option but to feel responsible for them,” Ida says.

Ida is a graduate of Weaving Earth Center for Relational Education and Rx Outside Nature-Led Trainings for Mentors, both of which helped shape her teaching methods. As a lifelong musician, Ida also incorporates musical elements as a central part of her approach. Music is woven into each days’ activities, from songs during circle time to creations on the fly, out in nature. 

Fundamental, place-based teachings inform Red Oak’s approach as well, encouraging students to learn through observation and participation, exploring a way of life more in sync with the natural world. Ida helps introduce these concepts to kids, and by extension their families, in a way that invites more people into the conversation. 

kids jumping by the river
Fun times abound at Red Oak Outdoor School. / Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School

“The reality is that not only do we care for the land, the land cares for us – and you start to feel that when you spend a lot of time on the land,” Ida says. “We’re being provided for in amazing ways, and feeling that two-way relationship supports a whole reality shift that I see as being essential to moving forward as humans.”

In the age of climate anxiety and a lot of collective fear for the future of the world, Red Oak Outdoor School embodies a localized response to this global problem. Climate change is a massive, systemic issue, and reconnecting with the places we live will be a critical part of a solution.

kids gathering sticks
Red Oak Outdoor School students immerse themselves in nature. / Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School

“I see this work as essential to the shift that is needed in how we relate to the land and ultimately to addressing the many environmental challenges we’re in,” Ida says. “I’m glad to be part of the patchwork of responses. Also, I think that one of the things that is so needed in this time is a human sense of belonging to one another, and this work tends to that. Each day we circle up and invite the kids to share and feel heard, and as simple as that can sometimes be, hearing each other’s stories…. I think it’s an integral part of our relationship with the land.” 

Iowa is the most biologically altered landscape in America. Around 85 percent of the land used to be covered in prairie. Now, there is less than a fraction of a percent. Still, Ida reminds us that this does not and cannot stop us from putting in the work.

a girl observing mushrooms
Exploration is key. / Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School

“It’s a really particular thing to do this work in this place,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a battleground. Iowa is where I grew up and I love this land. I really have a sense of being cared for here, and my body is at home here. 

So seeing now how broken this land is… there’s some intense grief and also, a sense of responsibility to give back. The animals and plants are still here and showing up for us. Can we actually see that and remember to show up for them?”

Red Oak Outdoor School clears a path for us to treat Iowa and the region with the reverence it deserves. There is so much hope in the desire for this change, and the community impact is just as powerful. Red Oak is expanding for a reason. Ida’s work is passion-fueled and it fills a void in a way that is incredibly needed. 

a boy looks on with binoculars while another smiles
Spotting wildlife is a favorite part of Red Oak Outdoor School. / Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School

“What gives me hope is seeing kids care, and seeing the brightness and their ability to pick up new old ways like that,” she says, snapping her fingers. “What gives me hope is peoples’ longing, what their longings are for, and the fact that I don’t feel like a lot of those things are very far away…I think a lot of the relationships we’re longing for and needing are actually really close and still in our DNA. It doesn’t take much to light those connections back up.”

Red Oak Outdoor School offers a variety of programs year-round, so while camp registration may be full for this summer season, make sure to keep your eye out for future registration dates. There are monthly weekend programs for kids in school, and homeschool offerings during the week. The summers bring nature-based day camp opportunities centered around play, exploration, relationship-building, adventure, and creativity. Programs are divided by age group (generally ages 5-6, 7-9, and 9-12) to ensure the learning matches ability levels. Activities range from weaving willow baskets to shelter building to music-making and beyond! These are experiences all kids can find their place in to grow their confidence, willingness to try new things, and connection to the world around them.

two girls sit on a tree branch
Photo courtesy Red Oak Outdoor School
“My daughter absolutely loves Ida’s camps. She explains to me that Ida’s camp not only teaches her so much about nature but most importantly helps her to truly feel a part of nature. Every time I pick her up from camp, she explains that it was the best day of her life!”  – Maria D, parent

When American author, philosopher, and theologian Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive,” he could have been talking about Ida Rotto. Anyone who has been so lucky to have heard her talk about her work can attest to the excitement in her eyes and the commitment with which she speaks. “It is such a gift to get to know the kids and support their unique ways of interacting with the world around them,” she says. “I love this work. And, I’m very open to the fact that I have a long life and lots of things I like to do. I’m 31. There is still a lot of time, right?”

Margaret Mullin

Margaret is from Minneapolis, Minnesota and just graduated from Luther College this spring with an Environmental Studies degree. From canoeing the Upper Iowa River to biking the Trout Run Trail, this place has affirmed that wherever she ends up, the Driftless area will always be a place she calls home.

Learn More about red oak outdoor school

Ida is committed to making Red Oak Outdoor School more accessible to families across the region, and has goals to expand financial assistance options in the coming years.  Currently Red Oak Outdoor School Programs (ages 5-6, 7-9, and 9-12) have a tiered tuition guide. 
Tier 1: Supporting others – this is for families with the resources to support others otherwise unable to join. 
Tier 2: Covering costs – this is the basic cost of the program. 
Tier 3: Supported by community – this helps people that would otherwise be unable to join. 

To stay up to date on Red Oak Outdoor School offerings, sign up for Ida’s newsletter here.