Rekindling The Flame Of Whole Person Education

Interview By Peia, Images & Video by Syd Woodward & Hemmie Lindholm.

Big broad snowflakes drifted around us as we meandered through the woods and scrambled up a steep hill to the tiny clearing where the Wolf Kids nature school lives and breathes. A central fire blazed on the ground under a simple, open-sided yurt where a covered row of cubbies held backpacks and lunch boxes.

The children, aged 8-13 years old, were all fast at work with their bow drills, rubbing furiously to create a single ember with which to make fire. Every one of them had made their own set of tools, some were whittling carefully to create a round drill or to carve the start of a new fire board. A cry rang out in excitement as a young boy made his very first ember. Both teachers and students alike responded with howls of celebration. Soon, another proud shout of achievement rose up from the collection of grubby fingers and furrowed brows, then another, and another.

The snow began to fall heavily. As we watched on in wonder and curiosity I considered how different this schooling experience is from that of my own childhood. Here there are no text books, no desks, no playground; there are just a lot of engaged kids working, singing and talking happily, surrounded by forest. What we witnessed at the Wolf Kids school seems to be a reclaiming of basic human survival skills, memorable rites of passage, and moments of rare beauty.

During our visit I got to talk with Wolf Kids founder Ingrid Bauer to ask her about the origins of this wilderness school, the importance of alternative methods of education, and more.

PEIA: What inspired you to start a nature school?

INGRID: We were working with kids and adults, taking them out into nature because it was what we did and we wanted to be in nature. So it ended up kind of becoming our livelihood. But this particular program and this particular Wolf Kids School started with a group of parents who wanted something different for their kids, and some mentors who brought a particular system of understanding Deep Nature Connection systems. Then we started to realize we wanted it for our own kids, too. That was a really big part, we wanted our own kids to grow up in this way, and we began to see what happens when kids grow up in nature, and then other people wanted that too. And then we just couldn’t do anything different. We just saw that this is the way. I really believe that we’re designed, in our DNA, to have these experiences in nature and that it helps us develop

PEIA: That leads into a couple of my other questions. What kind of skills do the children learn while they’re here and through your programs?

INGRID: Yeah, interesting question. Because on the surface what people look at is the hard skills that the kids are doing, you know, they learn how to make friction fire, make a fire without matches, they learn how to build a shelter that they can sleep in overnight, they learn how to identify foods, they learn how to track animals, they learn about bird language. They learn a lot, we do a lot of work on awareness, on expanding their awareness, and I think that’s the invisible part. Like a lot of times the kids think they’re just playing games, or people come from the outside and they think they’re doing skills or playing games, but a big part of what they get from it is just awareness. They learn through nature, I think, to be really good human beings. And they learn about peacemaking, they learn about being in community, and they learn about how everything is interconnected, and lots of different things.

PEIA: Beautiful. You just spoke a little bit about seeing what happens when kids grow up in this way and with this connection to nature, and can you share a little bit about what that looks like when they get into adulthood and go out into the wider world, and how you see that shape their lives?

INGRID: Well, it’s still in process. This school’s been around for 12 years, and so we’re just seeing the beginnings of it, like my son for example who was in it from the beginning, is 21. So we’re just seeing people now moving into the adult world. And like every human being there’s so much variety, but a lot of the things that we see is that they have a lot of confidence, they have a lot of, for lack of a better word, common sense; capacity to really navigate any situation. Instead of having a download of information, they really learn how to learn and how to figure out what needs to be done in any given situation or challenge. So that’s, I think, one of the most critical skills we’re going to need going into the future. There’s a lot of care and empathy and care for each other that I see. The capacity to trust people, to work together in a team, to speak for themselves and not feel like they have to change themselves to fit in. They tend to have just a lot of inner confidence, inner joy and happiness.

PEIA: Would you speak a little importance of having alternative forms of education?

INGRID: Well, for me this is really important because I believe so deeply that nature is the ultimate teacher. And so I’m really grateful to have this for all these kids and I want every kid to have this in some form, even if they go to school; that they have someplace where they can be free in nature and they can learn about themselves and about life by connecting with the natural world. And especially wild nature, like something that you can’t control. It’s teaches you about your own vulnerability.

But having alternatives is also important  because a lot of kids don’t do well in the school system. It really works well for certain kinds of kids who learn a certain way. And they also do great here, those kinds of kids also do great in this environment, but there are a lot of kids whose needs aren’t met. And this allows … Because there’s a mentoring situation where we’re watching the kids all the time and we’re looking what their particular gifts are and what their particular challenges is, so it really works for a really broad spectrum of kids.

PEIA: I wish that there had been a program like this where I grew up. Because I was one of those kids that did not learn the way that other kids did, and even though I had a high IQ I was identified as a “special needs” student and put in with a group of kids that all had different needs. I think that I grew up with the sense that there was something wrong with me and I just learned differently. And yet I would spend so much time in nature growing up- as soon as I got home from school I was in the woods until dark. I really feel like nature and the earth were my teacher but I didn’t have any guidance it was just on my own.

INGRID: Me too.

PEIA: So this next question is for folks that don’t have access to this, what are three things that parents can do to help encourage nature connection, earth wisdom in their children?

INGRID: Take your kid out in nature and give them free range to play. Just take them out and be outside with them, or let them go outside, and give them free range to play, number one. Two, be extremely wary of screens. I know a lot about the neuroscience behind what’s happening with kids and screens, it is way more dangerous than we realize. I wouldn’t even want kids on screens nearly as much as they are lower than 12 or 13 years old. So, get screens out of your house. And third one is role model it yourself. Get out in nature yourself. Get really connected to nature and take your kids with you.

PEIA: Could you give a few basic life skills that you feel like are important for every human to know? Like how to make fire, how to find drinkable water, just those basic skills.

INGRID: Well for me, all those hard skills are about learning to feel at home in nature and not see it as something separate. So anything that makes you feel at home in nature. But when I think about what are the really important life skills, it has a lot to do with being with people in community, and how to treat other humans, and developing empathy. And that is something that you also develop in nature. When you’re really out there, you develop a very deep sensitivity and empathy for the natural world. And to transfer that also to your community, that, I think, is the most important life skill.

PEIA: I feel like there is a fear of nature in humans now and this tendency to want to dominate because of what we don’t understand or what we’re fearful of. I live on a property where we have a lot of mountain lions and bobcats, and the folks that just bought the land, they started shooting bobcats because they see them as a threat to the turkey and deer populations and to their food and to their dogs and their kids; how would you speak to that, like just understanding ourselves as a part of nature and nature not being our adversary?

INGRID: And again, it’s about having that connection, like going out into nature. I think because we have this need to survive, right, it’s like a fundamental system in us, and so we also have this need to know and understand how to survive. And if we don’t have that and we don’t have curiosity for that, then all we’re left with is just the fear. And that fear is really dominating our culture right now because we don’t actually have the connection. And so it’s like, yeah, getting out there, having that connection.

Going back, you also asked me about a life skill. One of the ones that we work on the most is quiet mind. And so if you could only do one thing, is to find a place outside in nature, it doesn’t have to be in the middle of the wilderness, it can be in your backyard or in a park, and go there as much as you can, every day if you can, and just sit there quietly. And that, in and of itself, is completely going to change your life and you will not be afraid to be out there.

PEIA: At the end of this program I heard there’s a bit of a, sort of, initiation or rights of passage that happens. Can you speak a bit about that?

INGRID: Yeah, we do different things every year. Like every year we have three things that happen. In the fall we have a shelter overnight, where kids build their own shelter at their own levels, like anywhere from being in a shelter with five other kids or your mom, to building your own shelter way off. And they sleep in it overnight. So that’s the one thing, it’s in November, so it’s cold. We’ve had heavy snow.

And then we do, in April we do a fire sit where each kid, again, at their own level, builds their own fire at their sit spot — each kid has a sit spot they go to all the time — they build their own fire, so we have like 25, 28 fires all over the land. We have a central fire. The kids are sent out in kind of a ceremonial way, and then every hour somebody from the community, we have like 20 or 25 adults who sit around the center fire, and they go out to the individual kids and they tell them a story and then come back. Every hour until midnight usually. At that point, a lot of the kids, especially the younger ones, will come back, or they’ve already come back after one story, they got scared, you know and they came back with the first story. And then some of them will stay up all night and they tend their fire till first light.

And then at the end of the year we always have a three day camping trip and it’s always a different thing. One year we had kids circumnavigating Salt Spring in a canoe for four days, the older kids. We’ve had kids going out on hikes and spending the night alone and then coming back to the group that’s camping. We’ve had them do various, different challenges.

PEIA: Can you speak a bit about the importance of coming of age ceremonies and rites of passage?

INGRID: Yeah, I feel like it’s really important because I think it’s one of the reasons that, in some way, I think our culture is stuck in a teenage age because people are not initiated into something. There’s not some way that they’re sent out by their community and they experience solitude and they confront nature. And that thing that I talked about, about confronting wild nature, something that you cannot control. It’s not like being outside in your backyard or going camping, it’s like something you can’t control, and things that come up around it, and you overcome that, and you feel at home in it. And then you go back to your community as a different person, stepping from being really focused on you, and your community just nurturing you, to look at what can I now give my community? That’s how we frame it for the kids, too.

I think many, many young people go out and initiate themselves, they self initiate. Sometimes it’s great, it’s through traveling or adventures, but it’s also through drugs and driving too fast, and crazy, dangerous activities. But even the people who go out and do it in a healthy way, often aren’t received into a community; they’re not sent by a community and they’re not received back. So that’s a vital part. They get sent out, they have that intense experience, they come back, they’re received back, and we ask them also to give back to their community, in some way to give a gift to their community. Because they couldn’t actually do it alone.

PEIA: Can you speak a little about the importance of Humans regaining or re-establishing their connection to the natural world?

INGRID: That makes me want to cry because I think it’s absolutely vital to life, especially to humanity. The earth is going to keep going no matter what, but for it to happen for humanity in a balanced way it’s vital because you take care of what you love and that’s a big thing too for these kids because they learn to love nature. When you take your kids out they learn to love something and you can’t destroy what you love, that’s pretty basic.

PEIA: Thanks so much, thanks for the work you’re going- it’s beautiful.