PUBLISHED: by Eric Johnson

Peter Dargatz


Peter Dargatz, author of Teaching Off Trail: My Classroom’s Nature Tranformation through Play, took the time to talk with us about what happened when he turned his public kindergarten classroom into a nature program and went from anxious assessor and worksheet distributor to a fair and fun facilitator of learning while remaining in the same public school system.

“If you’re a teacher and you feel stuck—as though you’re barely making it through the motions—read this book. What Peter has beautifully shown to the world here is where the awakening, the restoration, and the joy live—on the trails that you create.” —Anthony T. DeBenedet, MD, Author of Playful Intelligence, and coauthor of The Art of Roughhousing .

Can you share a brief timeline of your educational and professional life?

Months before graduating with a business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (On Wisconsin!), I felt business wasn’t my true calling. After a year out in the “real world” searching for that perfect profession, I realized heading back to school was where I needed to go. I earned an elementary education and Masters Degree from Cardinal Stritch University and headed straight for the classroom to teach kindergarteners to fourth graders. I am excited that the 2021-22 school year will be my sixteenth one I get to spend with children.

Ever since you’ve created the nature kindergarten program, what is the most outstanding change you’ve seen in your class or in a student?

Engagement. I feel my students are more engaged in the process. I see my families being more involved in the learning. I know for a fact I’ve been recharged and engaged in every step of the way. This increased engagement provides more meaningful and memorable learning experiences that reach far beyond the classroom walls while also connecting to more developmentally-appropriate, whole-child skills.

The book includes Reggio or Montessori techniques. What characteristics of these teaching philosophies make them pertinent to a growing and evolving world?

It seems like common sense, but self-directed learning and opportunities for play are dwindling in more traditional approaches to educating our youngest learners. Both Montessori and Reggio have solid foundations in emergent learning and allowing the child to have power and choice in what and how they learn.

Why do you think public schools have not implemented Reggio or Montessori-like techniques sooner?

I’d say “the pressure of progress.” Whether it is from intrinsic or external forces, a certain pressure to continually make progress exists. This tends to present itself in society’s constant desire to improve scores and analyze data. This need to see progress instantly interferes with emergent and experiential styles of learning that allow understanding and learning to come more naturally and at more of a child’s pace. Simply put, there isn’t enough time to see the progress being made according to the standards placed on teachers, schools, and districts alike. At least, that’s how many educators feel. Hopefully, the pressure to progress can be relaxed and people can see that test scores, data, and report cards aren’t as valuable indicators of progress as society would have them believe.

Teaching off Trail highlights the importance of nature and outdoor classrooms. Are the strategies in the book applicable for schools located in urban areas or places which don’t have large nature spaces? How can they adapt your strategies to fit their environment better?

100% YES! The concept of nearby nature indicates how having large and flourishing greenspaces in our school yard is not a necessary tool to research-based, best practices in outdoor education. Nature is everywhere. Literally. Your school might not have an open field or adjacent forest, but it most certainly has a patch of grass or a tree. Even the most urban of settings can take steps to invite nature into their school. And if that seems daunting, this book offers alternative opportunities to bring nature inside and connect with outside organizations ready and willing to share the power of the outdoors with students anywhere and everywhere.

What motivated you to write a book?

In all honesty, writing this book wasn’t something I had really considered on my own. I love writing and have been writing picture books for a number of years. I’m actually just starting to get serious about trying to become a published children’s book author. It’s always been one of my dreams. But once I started our nature kindergarten program and had the privilege of presenting at various educational conferences, I had many instances where people who attended my presentation mentioned how my story needed to be a book to inform and hopefully inspire other educators. After hearing that message repeated a number of times, I figured it was time to listen to their advice.

What other books or resources have aided you in your career and would recommend to other early childhood professionals?

I could provide a list of books a mile long, but I’d hate to leave one out. 😊 That being said, I highly recommend reading as much as you can about topics near and dear to this approach including play, nature-based education, loose parts, experiential learning, and place-based education. If you want more specific books, check out my website at as I tend to share what I am reading.

What is on your professional or personal bucket list?

Professionally, the more and more I share my story and connect with other educators, the more and more I want to make more connections. I love building partnerships that make our classroom a truly community-based experience. Whether it be our classroom’s collaboration with Children’s Wisconsin (local children’s hospital), the amazing Retzer Nature Center, our Wisconsin Picture Book Pen Pal program, or the Play Partnership I am in the midst of creating with play professional all over the country, collaboration is key and I would love to strengthen these collaborations and maybe even write a book about it. 😉 Personally, besides publishing picture books, I’d love to come out of racing sausage retirement and win one more race at a Milwaukee Brewers game. I’d also love to travel the country and tour of every state capitol building, watch a baseball game in every major league stadium, visit awesome animals at every zoo, and hike trails in every national park.

You recently moved! Can you tell us a bit about your new home/project?

The way the housing market is right now, many people have been asking why now was the right time to move. Well, sometimes you don’t choose opportunity, it chooses you. Long story short, my family had no intentions of leaving our great neighborhood and even greater neighbors unless the perfect opportunity came around. And early last year, it did! We are now proud owners of a 20-acre hobby farm just two minutes away from my school. Not only am I so close to my school and my work family, my own kids now have my school as their school. Our new farm has plenty of work connected to it but even more potential. Besides restoring the land, my family has lots of other playful ideas for the future of our farm. Until then, we’ll just sit back and enjoy the spectacular sunsets and the menagerie of wildlife. Follow along on our farm adventures at 😊