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Heidi Ferris: The Environmental Sage of Growing Green Hearts

Heidi Ferris: The Environmental Sage of Growing Green Hearts

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Heid Ferris created Growing Green Hearts out of a desire to help people connect with nature. After teaching for 15 years, she saw a growing need for climate literacy in both communities and classrooms. Her goal is to share the health and joy of outdoor play with people while addressing this serious gap in climate education and science skills. Read more to learn about her passion for the outdoors, how she builds relationships to carry out her programs, and her mission to move people from knowledge to action!

Name: Heidi Ferris
Business: Growing Green Hearts. LLC
Location:  Minneapolis, Minnesota
Year Started: 2013

Tell us about Growing Green Hearts.

Growing Green Hearts is about playing, learning, and loving nature. From library programs to eSTEM teacher training; natural playground coaching to hands-on science site visits for youth; we connect people with nature and have fun doing it. We start with story times and science experiments, then assist groups in moving from knowledge to green actions. Our activities, training, and curriculum development for schools, groups, and non-profits are effective because they focus on sustainability and local partnerships. 

It’s an exciting time for environmental education because people recognize nature is no longer just at the cabin or on a field trip. Nature is the air we breathe and the water we drink. It’s the pollinator habitat we create and the energy saving plans we put in place. As an author of six children’s books, I help people put themselves inside our natural world of interconnected water, air, land, and living things. It’s an amazing creation we can nurture together wherever we play, learn, work, and live. Growing Green Hearts helps people feel and then act upon that message.

What was your first job growing up, and what did you learn from it?

My first job was coaching youth basketball; then I became a camp counselor not long after that. I appreciate how the power of play brings people together. Kids teach me things all the time - especially when noticing nature! They discover, test, and apply lessons genuinely. I appreciate how environmental STEM embraces and empowers the learner. As educators, we can coach the learner’s discoveries and experiences.

Tell us about your career path before starting your company, and how it got you to where you are today:

The idea of never-ending curiosity pulled me towards science education. Crystals, chemicals, tomatoes, and volcanoes have interested me since I was little. I went to college to study chemical engineering and play basketball and ended up falling in love with the field of education. “Problem-finding and problem-solving” is my basic definition of science, which helps young and old alike see environmental problems and solutions in an everyday light.

Just before my two daughters were born, I completed an environmental education master’s degree program. After over a decade of teaching in middle and high school classrooms, I shifted gears, and my ambition became meeting the need for climate literacy. Growing Green Hearts was born from my motivation to share the health and joy of outdoor play while addressing climate education needs within communities and classrooms (and sharing STEM strategies).

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Tell us the story of why and how you started your business:

When my oldest daughter started preschool, a few of the teachers asked me if I would lead some science lessons. They felt they “didn’t know enough science to teach it,” and what a scary misconception that was.  The scientific method, engineering, and design processes all start with questions.  For children that looks like play, wonderment, exploration rather than facts handed over to a child.

I began leading science story times and gardening projects at preschools, libraries, and elementary schools, with earth-care as the core message. Partnerships with cities, churches, and educational organizations evolved into consulting contracts over time and Growing Green Hearts, LLC began and continues to grow.

What is a typical day like for you?

Imagine your hands in the soil working with seedlings one day, and the click of computer keys the next.  Some weeks, I’m prepping for an educator’s conference by perfecting a PowerPoint and filling bins with science tools to ensure a rich, hands-on play experience. My days are full of variety based on projects and the legwork that goes into them.  These projects usually look like building relationships over a cup of coffee, researching local watershed district projects, starting native plants from seed, grant writing for funding, training leaders, and social media posts.

One recent project is strategy and curriculum development with the City of Blaine Wetland Sanctuary.  Another example of nature play is on summer weekdays with story times at local libraries, which explore everything from volcanic rocks in Minnesota to the power of prairie plants in cleaning water to silly ways of recycling for energy savings. 

Also, I often partner with churches to better explore the overlap between faith and science - water and climate in particular. Most Wednesday nights, I visit church youth groups around the metro with environmental STEM talks and activities as part of a curriculum series I wrote called, “Connect-the-Drops: Faith, Science & Youth Leadership.”

Community building is more challenging than gardening, but I enjoy both, and the rewards are simply beautiful.  Minnesota’s communities, people and ecology, are rich with diversity, and I enjoy learning from people’s stories.  The day-to-day variety allows me to do that.

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Tell us about a hard time in your career - what did you learn from it or how did it make you stronger?

I’ve learned relationships and experiences move people from knowledge to action - and that I’m pretty good at facilitating that growth. Some organizations have frameworks for environmental social justice work and service learning; others don’t - so I build them!

Sometimes I’m teaching science (climate specifically), in places where it’s not discussed, which is much different that teaching science to a set of required learning targets.  I’ve struggled when schools get stuck on the little things, zoomed in with such a narrow focus that the big picture of positive change and the potential of student leadership are out of focus.

I know I’m doing the right thing when anxieties about science lower and people share how much they love Minnesota’s land and water, and want to protect it for generations. Sometimes people don’t know how to get there or forget we can care for shared resources together locally; right here, right now. I enjoy the challenge and meeting new people who are doing such great things. Although, I do miss the comradery of middle school teachers! 

If you were to start your business over today, what would you do differently?

I don’t know what I would do differently; perhaps ask me in another ten years, and I can define that better!

What do you believe is your single strongest skill that’s helped you succeed?

Creativity and systemic-thinking have always come naturally to me. As a leader, problem-solver, gardener, and educator I use those gifts every day. Growing Green Hearts allows me to use those skills to make this world an even healthier, more trustworthy place.

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Tell us about your life outside of your business? What do you like to do?

You guessed it - I like to play outside! My kayak is my favorite toy, especially when I get to take it on the Mississippi River. I also enjoy cross-country skiing, camping, hiking, gardening, and cooking with family. When hanging out with friends, you can find me conversing and laughing with a glass of wine in hand.

How do you balance your career and family/personal life?

Rather than balance, I seek centeredness. With my spouse serving as clergy in the Lutheran ELCA church, I have the opportunity to worship and share deeply with people in my home congregation. Scripture, exercise, and outdoor play all help me stay centered. 

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Quick fun facts...

 What’s your favorite charity? Lutheran World Relief + Minnesota Environmental Fund

What age do you want to retire at? Now would be great - but there’s work to be done!

One travel location on your bucket list? Top three places I’d like to travel to are: Barcelona, Northern Norway, and BWCA (again)

Are you an introvert or extrovert?  Both

What is your favorite blog, podcast, or book? Favorite Books Include: Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, and The Giver by Lois Lowry


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