In Digital Age, Connecting Kids With Nature

By Beacon Staff

EAST OF CRESTON – With the rain letting up, Brett Holmquist led a group of children with type 1 diabetes out of a teepee to a nearby pond, where he laid next to the water and sought a new perspective.

He wanted to see the world as a river otter does. One of the children wanted the perspective of a bear and another, a raccoon.

In this dense forest near Strawberry Lake, new perspectives are constantly sought and consistently found. Holmquist, co-founder of the nonprofit Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center, makes sure of this.

Since 2003, Holmquist has directed nature camps for children throughout the Flathead Valley. Today, his outdoor learning center serves hundreds of children every year, both through schools and on an individual basis, along with an increasing number of adults. The camps are held in multiple locations.

The Montana Environmental Education Association named Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center its “Business of the Year” in 2009.

The learning center’s motto is: “Connecting people with nature, community and self.” In an age when most kids are plugged in, nature gets tuned out. This is a tremendous loss in their lives, Holmquist feels.

“The world is so busy right now,” he said. “I think it’s important to let kids slow down, to let them be who they are and give them permission to do it and encourage it.”

Holmquist used to be a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Bigfork Elementary School before he shifted his educational focus from the classroom to the woods. He started the Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center with his wife, who also works part-time as a wildlife tech for the U.S. Forest Service.

With obesity rates rising in Montana and nationwide, and kids getting diagnosed with an increasing number of maladies, Holmquist believes a little perspective is in order – perspective, perhaps, like a river otter’s.

“As a society, we have to address that,” he said. “We can’t keep moving in that direction. We have to do something and that’s how Ravenwood got started.”

On June 15-19 near Strawberry Lake, the Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center held its inaugural Type 1 Diabetes Wilderness Camp for children ages 6-12. The day camp is one of many different programs offered by Ravenwood, but the first specifically focused on kids with diabetes.

Sherry Parmater, who started as Ravenwood’s executive director in February, said children with diabetes, because they have specific medical needs, have a hard time participating in the regular camps. Hoping to better serve these children, Ravenwood approached Kalispell Regional Medical Center about collaborating on a special program.

“They were very enthusiastic,” Parmater said of KRMC officials.

Thus the diabetes outdoor camp was born. Two nurses from KRMC were present throughout last week’s camp and a hospital dietician prepared the kids’ lunches and snacks. Eight kids signed up.

At other Ravenwood outdoor camps, up to 20 or more children participate, though Holmquist likes to keep the numbers relatively low for more one-on-one interaction between children and staff. In addition to himself, Holmquist has three staff members out in the field, while Parmater takes care of business matters from an office in downtown Kalispell.

Holmquist doesn’t incorporate a curriculum or predetermined coursework in his educational model, instead utilizing games, singing and dancing, all with an emphasis on interaction between the kids and with nature. The first step is getting the kids to the woods. From there, the program adapts to them.

For instance, two girls showed an interest in plants, based mostly on sheer childhood curiosity. Holmquist recognized this, encouraged it and eventually handed them a field guide, watching as the girls greatly expanded their plant knowledge without consciously viewing the endeavor as research or learning. They were just having fun.

By the end of the camp, the girls were making root beer from sarsaparilla roots to celebrate a birthday party. Ravenwood staff members also lead kids on scavenger hunts, looking for different types of mushrooms, edible plants and any number of nature’s offerings.

Parents might marvel at how much their children learn in a short time at camp, yet “the kids have no idea they’re learning anything,” Holmquist said. By disguising learning through activities, Holmquist is able to package wilderness survival skills, plant identification training and more into a single, laid-back outing in the woods.

Holmquist wants the campers to learn as much about themselves as they do about plants and animals.

“We like to encourage self-development through nature,” Holmquist said.

To learn more about Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center’s camps, offered throughout the summer, and other courses, go to www.ravenwoodolc.org or call (406) 890-4326. Also, the Rockin’ for Ravenwood music festival is scheduled for Aug. 1 at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse outdoor stage.

Also, the Rockin’ for Ravenwood music festival is scheduled for Aug. 1 at the Rocky Mountain Roadhouse outdoor stage.

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