Thursday, March 26, 2009

Laughing Coyote Project

Recently I interviewed Neal Ritter and Gelsey Malferrari of the Laughing Coyote Project, which is a nature immersion experience for students from 5-14. The acres for learning, exploration, play, animals and plants are based in Lafayette, Colorado. They have programs for home-schooled children, an after school program, as well as summer day camps.

How did you come up with the idea for Laughing Coyote?

Immersion in nature is something we have both been interested in, and a part of our own individual studies, including time in Central and South America. It is very much inspired by Tom Brown Jr.’s work, teaching ancestral skills, and building a stronger connection with nature.

What is the goal of the project?

The goal here is to make kids comfortable in nature and to give them a sense of intimacy with the outside world. We also want to involve parents and the community to make a cultural change. We want to provide unstructured time for exploration, providing an opportunity to get fully immersed and dirty in the outdoors, and to teach skills we used to have, like animal tracking, identifying wild edible plants, animal husbandry, and gardening, among other things.

You both are Waldorf graduates - how does your educational background inform your work here and how does it help you in life in general?

We try to look at the world with a broader prospective and to question things. Not rebel, but to ask and ponder, rather than accept without curiosity or examination. We have a strong sense of reverence for nature, respect for others, and good imaginations. We value experiences and foster that value in the students that come here – and they love it.

Rudolf Steiner, who created the Waldorf School model, also started the biodynamic gardening movement. You have a biodynamic farm. What is the difference between organic and biodynamic?

It actually takes four years for a farm or garden to go through a biodynamic cycle. There is a biodynamic certification, but we are not focused on that. Organic means that there are no artificial inputs, but it can still be a monoculture (a single plant on the whole property), industrial in size and scope, and fertilizers and pesticides can be used as long as they are organic and not petroleum-based. With biodynamic farming, the aim is sustainability and a complete eco-system. It is a closed circle in that you do not need anything from outside, everything you need is part of your farm. The manure from your animals is the fertilizer. The seeds you use to plant come from your garden. There is emphasis on observation and awareness to correct any problems on the farm, rather than external additions. It is what people have done for thousands of years. They knew from experience and awareness when to plant and how.

How is this different from the Outward Bound programs?

Those programs tend to be about survival with the right kind of gear and they are every goal-oriented. Our program is indigenous in its approach. It’s not about the gear; it is about identification of plants and animals, awareness, and ability to survive without so much gear but with applying knowledge. Our program is purposefully much less structured and the satisfaction is found in the process, not the end product. Kids have so much structure in their day and they really do well with unstructured time for exploration.

What can families do with their children to encourage a love and knowledge of nature?

Be unstructured and skip the goal. If you are planning on going for a hike, think of it more as a long, deep exploration rather than about distance and time. Let the kids lead you in exploring – you may only cover 100 yards in three hours but they will be utterly engrossed in the experience and you can be too. Go off trail when it is possible and not harmful. That is where you see and experience interesting things.

How does gardening or nature provide a balance to children and adults alike?

It is only in the last several decades that we have become so divorced from nature, and now we take it for granted that it has always been this way. Nature is part of our blue print. We wanted to bring that awareness and connection back. There is something deeply satisfying about being comfortable in nature. There is an initiation of sorts at first, because TV and video is hard to compete with. It takes awhile to get quiet and immersed before you begin to feel that satisfaction that no amount of media can provide.

Your summer camp programs offer weekly programs for 8-14 year old children. Describe a day in the life of a summer camper at Laughing Coyote.

We begin the day in an intentional way by sitting in the circle together and giving thanks. There is a rhythm to the day, but not so much structure. They learn tracking, and how to forage for wild edibles, we have creek time where we go tubing, playing in the mud and swinging into the water from the tree swing. We have a tree fort and lots of fields to explore. We play outdoor games, take care of the animals, and do nature-based art projects, like pine needle baskets, medicine sticks, and creating and painting with our own pigments. The students walk away with a breadth of new skills and understanding about nature.

You can learn more about the Laughing Coyote Project and their programs at

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