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Thomas J. Elpel

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Pony, MT 59747
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Thomas J. Elpel
Author, Builder, Educator, and Conservationist

About Tom: Résumé | Books | Videos | Programs & Classes | Articles | News | Blog
Back to Nature: Experiential Education | Wilderness Survival | Botany | Conservation
Sustainable Living: Green Building | Green Economics | Green Energy

Experiential Education
Working with Kids and Schools towards Whole-Person Education

Indoor sign for Nature Walk.

      What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature? That is the question asked in the ground-breaking documentary PLAY AGAIN. The average American child today spends about ninety percent of their time indoors, with more than eight hours per day spent in front of a screen playing video games, watching television, or surfing the internet and texting friends.

      We are raising whole generations who are not only disconnected from nature, but also from physical reality.How can we expect the next generation to steward our natural resources if they have never been beyond the lawn grass? How can we expect them to build and upkeep society if they have never learned to use their hands?

      From architecture to medical school, employers and colleges are finding that young people don't understand how things work because they lack experience with ordinary hands-on activities such as building forts, tinkering with engines, managing livestock, or cooking over a fire.

Bowdrill firestarting team building.       I never anticipated becoming a leader in whole-person, experiential education, but from reading books like Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods or watching documentaries like PLAY AGAIN, it is evident that I accidentally and independently stumbled to the leading edge of the No Child Left Inside movement.

      While PLAY AGAIN brings our attention to the potential danger of raising our children totally disconnected from nature, Classroom in the Woods focuses more on the solution, providing a model demonstration of the kind of whole-person education every kid should be entitled to.

      My interest in experiential education began when my own kids were in elementary school. Each year I volunteered to bring their classes out for day-long field trips. We went out in the woods and built shelters, started fires with flint and steel kits, gathered rose hips and herbs for tea, played stalking games, and cooked over the campfire.

Kids gathering cattails.       When my daughters entered junior high, we upped the ante and started doing overnight camping trips. Our first camping trip in 2002 could have been our last, after bringing a dozen seventh graders out in the woods without tents or tarps. It rained 1.3 inches in twenty-four hours! Yet, the class stayed adequately dry in shelters they built themselves out of sticks and bark, and everyone had a blast. The following year, I brought the same class back for the Eighth Grade Camp-Out, and we have continued to develop and refine the program ever since. The junior high camping trip is now written into the seventh and eighth grade curriculum at the local school.

      The educational component of camping in the woods may not be obvious, yet it can be profound. For example, being around a campfire may not seem educational, yet kids are learning. They may not grasp the scientific model detailing the interplay of fuel, heat, and oxygen, but they absorb the science experientially, adding or removing fuel, or blowing on a fire to make it burn better. The lack of this type of experience is evident in kids and adults who wonder why a big stick won't ignite with the flame from a single match. They have no concept of basic physics. In a culture where people are increasingly detached from the natural world, it is increasingly common to see printed warnings for things that should be plainly obvious, such as coffee cups that say "Caution: Contents may be hot."

Coal burned out wood bowls.       Other people ask the most bizarre questions, such as tourists in Yellowstone National Park who wonder, "Where do they put all the animals at night?" They simply have no concept of reality. As a society, how can we function that way? How can voters make sound choices at the polls when they are not connected to the most basic things, such as where the electricity comes from when they flip on a light switch?

      Without a connection to physical reality, energy consumption and policy proposals are abstract and meaningless. Just as the national deficit is too big to grasp and rapidly growing bigger as the numbers become more imaginary, it is impossible to chart a sustainable energy future when energy itself is an abstraction.

      Real world experiences help wire the hands to the brain, enabling people to integrate conceptual knowledge, while acquiring an ethic of stewardship and the tools to think sustainably. Managing a campfire provides the necessary foundation for people to intuitively quantify energy and understand where it comes from, as described in my article, Brain in a Box on a Shelf: The Need to Reconnect Kids with Nature.

Grass rope making group effort.       As an instructor, my goal is not so much to teach students survival skills, but rather to connect them with the real world. I have observed that by working with the same group of students year after year, they are able to build on previous experiences, becoming more comfortable in nature and confident in their own abilities, while absorbing academic lessons more deeply.

      It is my goal to give students healthy lifelong choices for outdoor recreation to foster self-confidence in their abilities, to educate them about the world underfoot, and to encourage them to become lifelong learners and responsible citizens. Towards that end, we are working to expand our programs to reach out to many more local schools and classes. In 2012 we purchased a twenty-acre property along the Jefferson River here in southwestern Montana to serve as a permanent field camp for our primitive skills programs.

Wild harvested salad in bark bowl.       I recognize a certain impracticability to scaling our programs up to reach every kid in Montana or the nation. Much of what we do requires specially trained instructors. Funding issues aside, it would be difficult to find enough qualified instructors to lead these kinds of programs on a large scale.

      However, there are many other steps we can take to reconnect our young people with the real world. The key factor is to acknowledge that reality cannot be discovered solely in a book or through a screen. We need to pursue many different venues to get our kids out of the classroom and back into nature or into the community.

      For example, here in Montana, the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks could partner with high school shop classes to repair vandalized and broken facilities at parks and fishing access sites. In many cases, it is our young people that vandalize such facilities, because they are both bored and disconnected from ownership. The state could save money with free labor, while nurturing a sense of stewardship and ownership of our public facilities among the kids. Students could also assist wildlife biologists with real-world research and monitoring, rather than merely reading about biology in a text book. These kind of partnerships can be win-win situations that ultimately save taxpayer dollars.

Wood debris lean-to and wiki-up.       Montana is unique in having progressive Indian Education for All legislation. By law, students learn about the first Montanans--the Native Americans that live here, including their tribal history, cultures, beliefs, and reservation life. However, as with many subjects taught in schools, it is principally an academic exercise. Our young people may "learn" about the indigenous population of Montana without ever interacting with Native Americans. With resurging interest among tribes nationwide to reclaim their heritage, it seems like a prime opportunity to form collaborative partnerships to bus kids to the nearest reservation for immersive, cultural experiences, perhaps along the lines that Thom Henley as described in his book Rediscovery: Ancient Paths, New Directions.

      Our schools could also be on the forefront of the sustainable living movement. We are, after all, trying to prepare our children with the skills they need to survive and prosper. So it is shocking to see that our schools are often the very antithesis of sustainable living. It is common to see schools with such poor heating systems that teachers compensate for overactive heaters by keeping the window open. It is common to see full-size, fuel-guzzling school busses picking up kids on rural routes that could be better served with a ten-passenger vans. It is common to see aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and vast quantities of recyclable paper all discarded in the trash in institutions where the kids are supposedly focused on "learning."

      If our schools are to teach our young people life skills, then it seems sensible to focus on that directly, doing such things as managing the school recycling program, assisting with solar and wind energy projects, or helping out as cooks in the school kitchen.

      Maybe these kinds of activities were not necessary in the past when children grew up playing in the woods, working on the farm, and helping out with the cooking. However, we live in a very different world now, where academic skills, such as mathematics, can often be acquired playing video games. Yes, we can take advantage of cutting edge technology to turn learning into a game. But we must also take steps to provide the kinds of hands-on, experiential learning opportunities that older generations took for granted as a way of life.

Classroom in the Woods: Primitive Skills for Public Schools. DVD. by Thomas J. Elpel.
Interesting Stuff? Check out
Classroom in the Woods
Primitive Skills for Public Schools

See also: Outdoor Classroom (Bozeman Daily Chronicle) and Comments from Students about the 2011 Junior High Camping Trip, as well as my blog entry, The Power of Experiential Education.

See also: Outdoor Wilderness Living School - OWLS

Botany in a Day.


      Hello. After spending the evening watching some of your videos on YouTube and another hour or so browsing your website I felt a huge down to earth connection with you and all the things your doing. It appears to me you love what you do and are very passionate about life and nature. To me that's a good thing.

Shanleya's Quest.       My name is John Cammarota I'm 53 years old. I'm married 31 years now to my loving wife Stacy. We have two adult children and two grandchildren. I just had to send you a little positive energy from me and my family here in the Sierra foothills of Nothern California. We call it "God's Country". As things seem to be a little crazy in the world today I feel everyone could use a dose of your courses and get back to nature, family and human kindness. Learning a bit more about mother nature and what she offers is an amazing thing. So thank you for spending your time to make education in learning about her and putting it into a fun and interesting way. I'm looking forward to teaching my grandchildren while using your methods.

God bless and good vibes...

- John

      Looking for life-changing resources? Check out these books by Thomas J. Elpel:

Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit
to Reality
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.
in Nature
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat.
Foraging the
Mountain West
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
in a Day
Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

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