Local man helps students connect to the outdoors

Katie Russell demonstrates a bow-drill fire for the Sheridan school first graders. Photo by Nick Kern

By Nick Kern

For The Madisonian

There are many perks to being a child and growing up in southwest Montana.

One thing that makes this area so special is the people who live here are often willing to share with local kids their vast knowledge and experience about the world that surrounds them.

Tom Elpel of Pony is one such person. Elpel is a world-renowned specialist in botany and primitive survival skills. He has written a number of books and produced DVDs including “Botany in a Day,” which is used in college classrooms around the country, “Participating in Nature,” a hands-on guide to survival skills, and “Shanleya’s Quest,” a children’s guide to plant identification. Additionally, he has been mentoring people in the art of connecting to the natural world through ancient skills since 1991, when he started Hollowtop Outdoor Primitive School (HOPS) Originally, HOPS was dedicated to working with adults, but his true passion has become teaching children the importance of connecting directly to the wild, natural world around them.

For the past 10 years Elpel has taken Harrison seventh and eighth graders on a three-day, two-night adventure into the woods where they learn many primitive skills, like building fires from natural resources through either the bow-drill or hand-drill methods; learning to forage for food, locating not only edible, but tasty plants and mushrooms that grow in the wild; and making shelters, bowls and utensils from natural resources. Most importantly, the kids just have lots and lots of fun in the outdoors. Elpel recently made a DVD documenting this program called “Classroom in the Woods.”

He is now expanding his programs to other schools in the area, with the help of assistant instructors Katie Russell and Kris Reed. The first grade class from Sheridan recently came to his home in Pony and spent the day learning some basic skills, playing games, and making music with drums, rattles, and flutes. Russell told a story and demonstrated how to make a fire with the bow-drill – basically by rubbing two sticks together.

“Kids this age have a natural enthusiasm for the outdoors and survival skills,” Elpel said. “It is important to allow them to connect with the real world like this, rather than just plunking them in front of a television or computer screen until they grow up.”

The first graders followed Elpel on a foraging mission to make a salad for lunch; and with Russell, they played games that introduced skills that were necessary for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, such as stalking and using senses other than vision. Overall, the kids just had a blast being outdoors and playing in the mud.

Elpel wishes he could provide similar opportunities for every grade from every school in the region. However, he has not had suitable facilities to offer more than a handful of classes per year. He is looking to change that by purchasing a property that will enable HOPS to serve many more schools.

Elpel also hopes that teachers and administrators will realize just how important these ancestral skills are to our children’s physical, mental and emotional health. It’s become very clear that kids of our modern technological world are suffering from what is being called “nature-deficit-disorder” and Elpel’s programs are the perfect cure. To find out more about Elpel and his work, visit www.hollowtop.com.


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