Innovating Education through Nature’s Blueprint

In its 14th year, the acclaimed Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center has served more than 4,000 kids, and now it’s aiming to expand its offerings to adults and secure a permanent location

By Myers Reece | Photography by Greg Lindstrom

The vast opportunities afforded by technology can actually narrow the scope of our lives, a truth that may seem counterintuitive. But there’s a lot that doesn’t fit on our screens, namely a sweeping expanse that past generations called the world. To see it, we have to look up, around, within, just not always down at the devices in our hands.

It’s no secret that an increasingly digital culture risks diminishing our connections to each other and to nature. But to restore and nurture and celebrate those connections, sometimes we need guidance. Ravenwood Outdoor Learning Center has been providing that support for kids of all ages for 14 years, and is poised to expand its offerings to adults next year, in its 15th season.

“There are many distractions and obstacles in our fast-paced society,” Ravenwood’s mission statement posits, “and an increasing number of negative trends — obesity and health issues, screen addiction, attention disorders, stress, violence, disrespect, substance abuse, you name it — all of which need our attention and action as a community. Ravenwood is here to help, a place for kids and adults to learn and grow, naturally.”

Program Director Jennifer Bresee, center, holds up a piece of moss to mimic a beard as she jokes with campers on May 11, 2017.

For Brett Holmquist, Ravenwood’s co-founder and executive director, the program isn’t just an opportunity to get outside and learn important wilderness skills, although it is that. But Holmquist has grander ambitions, as the mission statement implies. He wants Ravenwood to be a tool for analyzing how we view the natural world and our place in it, how we approach our educational systems, and how we interpret the concept of community.

“It’s about establishing relationships, connecting people to nature, community and self,” Holmquist says. “Our hope is that people carry that with them on the other side of the program.”

More than 4,000 kids have enrolled in Ravenwood since its inception in 2003, choosing from day programs and multi-night stays, either through their schools or as an extracurricular summer pursuit. Kids come from across the Flathead Valley and beyond, including Missoula, Bozeman and eastern Montana communities. In 2009, the Montana Environmental Education Association named Ravenwood “Business of the Year” statewide.

Ravenwood offers an experiential curriculum, insofar as it has a set agenda. At a multi-day camp in May, third- and fourth-grade students from Sussex School in Missoula chose from various areas of focus called “guilds,” which teach a range of skills, such as making medicine from plants, building a fire and constructing a bow and arrow.

Rather than survival skills, Holmquist prefers to call them “traditional or ancestral skills.” They’re all facets of “cultural technologies.” Kids learn through hands-on experience, creating an educational atmosphere in which they aren’t always aware that they’re “learning.” They’re too busy enjoying themselves and eagerly awaiting the next family camping trip when they can put those newly acquired talents to use.

Both of Terry Miller’s daughters have enrolled in Ravenwood through Sussex’s annual excursions. Already hailing from an outdoorsy family, now Miller’s daughters revel in identifying plants on hikes and employing other realms of knowledge gained from Ravenwood.

“They loved it,” Miller says. “This is the real deal. The stuff they’re learning, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Not only is it totally fun, but they’re learning about gratitude and being thankful and other lessons.”

Jayda Anderson makes a face through her loom at Kylie Kinslow as the Bigfork fifth-graders work with their weaving guild at Ravenwood on May 18, 2017.

Music and storytelling are woven into Ravenwood’s philosophy, serving as catalysts for bonding and building community and plain old fun. The Sussex students discovered a way to meld birdcalls with Lady Gaga, chanting, “Caw, caw, caw…”

Parents participate, too, chaperoning and leading certain components of the agenda, while also helping with meals and staying onsite each night. They also have to break their cell phone habits during their stay.

“There was a chance to use Google earlier, and we just went with the old-fashioned make it up,” joked Robin Checota, a Sussex parent.

Prior to launching Ravenwood with his wife at the time, Laura, Holmquist taught elementary school in Bigfork. He grew disillusioned with the “industrial” model of American education. He’s quick to note that schools are full of excellent, capable and dedicated teachers and administrators, but he believes they’re working within an improperly constructed system.

“Our educational environments are too much like factories,” he says. “That model is designed to generate things, but not well-rounded people. There are a lot of kids who get left behind.”

As an example, Holmquist said he would witness multiple behavioral problems each day at regular elementary school, whereas at Ravenwood, “I can only think of two or three situations in 14 years, with over 4,000 students, where we had to intervene.”

“We need to stop and ask, ‘How are our educational environments serving our kids?’” he adds. “Let’s look at modern educational design in the context of nature’s blueprint.”

From left: Bigfork fifth-graders Jack Jensen, Sawyer Gardner and Mason King build a lean-to shelter at Ravenwood on May 18, 2017.

That objective is at the heart of Holmquist’s latest endeavor aimed at creating an adult program in 2018. While Ravenwood already hosts an annual adult initiative, the new project will be expansive and far more all-encompassing. He envisions not only teachers and administrators from across the country, and perhaps world, participating, but also any adult with a stake in our collective children’s future, which could be anybody.

As a partner program, Ravenwood will also launch adult courses on wilderness, or ancestral, skills, headed up by program director Jennifer Bresee. Holmquist notes that awareness in nature is a skill itself, pointing out that you can identify the presence of a mountain lion without seeing it, but rather by reading the frantic calls of birds.

Holmquist isn’t a Luddite, nor is he trying to promote such a philosophy at his learning center. He’s plugged in like the rest of us are; Ravenwood’s website is highly informative and well-designed. But he knows there’s more to a well-rounded life than Wi-Fi and touchscreens, and that we have to step outside those modern comforts to expand ourselves, to enrich our existences.

In the woods without cell phones, adult enrollees will not only lose power over the flow of information at their fingertips, which Holmquist says often creates an “echo chamber,” but they will also realize that they’re participating in their surroundings rather than controlling them. You’re not even the top predator out there. It’s invigorating and appropriately humbling.

Adults will also be guided by the same eight tenets of connection as the kids are: happiness, health and vitality, deep listening, empathy for nature, being truly helpful, being fully alive, compassion, and quiet mind.

Brett Holmquist, co-founder and executive director of Ravenwood, pictured at Lone Pine State Park on May 18, 2017.

Ultimately, Holmquist hopes to secure a permanent location for Ravenwood. The two current spots — Grizzly Base Boy Scout Camp near Bigfork and F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. property near Columbia Falls — are great, but they’re shared and create logistical dilemmas.

But those are grownup concerns. The students from Sussex, their days full of fishing and exploring the forest, had other things on their minds. One kid, who had to leave behind his fidget spinner, a trendy stress-relieving toy, was inspired to address the issue by asking a simple question, according to Sussex teacher Carrie Harper: “Can we try to make a fidget spinner out of natural objects?”

“I thought, ‘That’s a great idea,’” Harper said. “That’s Ravenwood right there. That’s what it’s all about.”

Ravenwood is also now offering private family camps. Be sure to visit www.ravenwoodolc.org for more info.

* Read more of our best long-form journalism in Flathead Living. Pick up the summer edition for free on newsstands across the valley. Or check it out online at flatheadliving.com.

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