AVILLA —This is a true story about a local youth philanthropy group investing in an idea that a couple of faculty members from Oak Farm Montessori School in rural Avilla had to immerse elementary students in natural settings and engage them in learning about their natural surroundings, how to respect it and how to live off of it.

Thanks to the generosity of PULSE of Noble County helping to underwrite the summer camp Building Bridges and Exploring Nature Together, Michal Miller and Brett Bloom, were able to do just that.

The inspiration for the camp was the 100-acre campus that Miller and Bloom call home during the school year. Oak Farm is a community asset and they desired to have non-Oak Farm students benefit from the campus. This resulted in a week in the woods, prairies, and wetlands, a first time experiences for many students.

“We knew cost could be a deterrent, but with the help of funding from PULSE, we were able to offer the camp at a greatly reduced cost.”

The partnering schools were asked to provide transportation and a staff member to accompany their students to camp each day, said Nicole Lowe, summer camp coordinator.

“Our goal was to establish the foundation for a partnership that could grow and expand with the interest of the camp,” she added.

“It was exciting to know that we were going to have new students on our campus and have the opportunity to begin a partnership with Towles and Bunche Montessori Schools who are part of the Fort Wayne Community School District,” said Bloom, the school’s eco-literacy coordinator.

By integrating Project Learning Tree exercises, immersive exploration in wild spaces, group conversations and concentrated questions promoting student reflection and sketchbook work, Miller and Bloom engaged students in a unique outdoor experience. “Students were a little uncomfortable the first day. Oak Farm students had friends that they knew and were at home on our campus. The students from Fort Wayne were also with their friends, but were in a completely unfamiliar environment. Many had never done simple things such as climb a tree, walk in the woods and listen, observe and be part of nature,” Miller said.

Miller and Bloom and Amy Bobilya, the teacher volunteer from Bunche Montessori in Fort Wayne, the urban partner school, did what they do every day. They stepped back, revised their game plan and followed the children’s needs. This does not mean chaos.

Much of the week was spent in mud boots: crawling through the woods, literally, looking at the tiniest of teeming life; walking in the prairie to gather things that interested them, plunging through the wetlands into a massive stand of cattails over 8 feet tall.

Students visited the middle school, where caring for farm animals is part of the curriculum. Campers discussed the importance of having appropriate living space to meet the needs of the animals. Later they snacked on duck eggs collected from the ducks on campus.

While turning over logs, one camper found lemon ants. This student became the teacher by sharing what he knew about lemon ants, that they were safe to eat and tasted just like lemons! After his impromptu lesson, the other students were given the opportunity to taste the ant.

On another occasion, a camper had never climbed a tree and was very nervous. There was no pressure, just encouragement. By the end of the week, this student not only climbed a tree, but she chose to have lunch on the last day of camp sitting up in a tree connecting with her natural surroundings.

By the middle of the week, students who had been previously afraid to balance on a log were now climbing trees on their own. Students, who had been unsure of what to do in a vast landscape of prairie or woods, were exploring independently and collecting seeds and insects by the end of the week. Students cared for themselves, the environment, and their fellow campmates.

“I am truly amazed at what this camp did for our children,” said Amy Bobilya. “It was awesome to observe how the children and their mindset changed throughout camp. As the camp progressed they became more curious and started to take more risk. (They) were given the opportunity to engage in an area of particular interest and became more self-confident. Most of the children who attended camp from Fort Wayne had never heard of the different ecosystems ... let alone know that you can taste, feel and touch them!”

She added, “The children’s compassion grew not only for nature, but also for each other ... I observed the children helping each other climb up trees, giving each other comfort when scared of an animal, and encouraging each other in the woods.”

All adults can promote this growth. Join your child outside. Visit a park or take a walk down the street. You don’t have to have a 100-acre campus to stop, listen and enjoy nature and all that it has to offer.

Kim Davidson is strategic partnership director for Oak Farm Montessori School, 502 Lemper Road, Avilla. Contact her at 897-4270.

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