Swinging in hammocks, painting in nature and fishing the Red River – as a pediatric Occupational Therapist, Joni Hjalmquist already knew that play is the most important occupation in a child’s life. Now, she is taking that knowledge and combining it with the outdoors to provide unique experiences for kids of all ages in the community, from preschool all the way through middle school.
When the pandemic hit, Joni and her co-workers at Beyond Boundaries Therapy Services were forced to turn to teletherapy to continue to serve their clients. However, spending more time on the internet had an unexpected side benefit: it led Joni to come across a course and podcast by Laura Park Figueroa exploring the benefits of nature-based therapy (the ConTiGO approach Connection and Transformation in the Great Outdoors), and she immediately signed up for it.
“We know that being outside has so many benefits for people, kids especially. So when I saw the course, I immediately thought ‘this sounds amazing, why am I not a part of this?’” Joni said. “The course was incredible and attended by people all around the world. They give you a good foundation as to how to get started, and encourage you to take the parts that light you up and make it your own.”
Armed with additional tools provided by the course, Joni took her enthusiasm outdoors by launching the “Let’s Grow OuTside” Nature Camp through the House of Everyday Learning (HOEL) in the summer of 2021. Started by the owner of Beyond Boundaries, LaDonna Bannach, HOEL is a nonprofit organization which aims to provide opportunities for kids that are not covered by insurance as individual therapy services are. HOEL helps provide scholarships and a resource library to support families. “Let’s Grow OuTside” is now one of several camps provided by HOEL. The other camps focus on social skills, life skills in the community and sensory exploration.
“When people think ‘occupational therapy,’ a lot of people think ‘jobs’—but really we target any important activity an individual engages in during their day,” Joni said. “A child does not need to have a diagnosis or be having significant struggles to receive therapy. If part of your child’s day is hard, we break down the activity to find out what is making it challenging. Really, we are creative problem solvers with the family.
“Each nature camp has a capacity of six kids, one occupational therapist and one trained volunteer. Each family identifies a few areas that they want us to work on with their child and every child is different. Sometimes it is as simple as wanting them to be outside and enjoy nature. Not everyone has safe opportunities for that. Sometimes the goal might be something like trying new things, or being okay with getting dirty outside, or climbing a tree or socializing with peers,” Joni said.
“There are a lot of great camps in the community. However, I really feel there is a gap when it comes to nature camps for kids. This camp is different both because it is held entirely outside and because it is led by a trained occupational therapist. A lot of the course is built on children taking healthy risks for their development. Yes, we’re getting outside and letting the kids explore and take part in activities, but we are mindful of the goals the family wants us to work on and we really individualize it to the kids participating.”
Located next to the Beyond Boundaries building in south Fargo, the “Let’s Grow OuTside” Nature Camp utilizes a large space with a small hill, large trees, sun, shade, lots of wildlife, and access to the Red River. Soon it will also boast a storage shed and additional nature exploration activities purchased with a grant from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation, which named the nature camp their July 2022 grantee.
“As we’ve grown in 2022, we’ve added more camps. My dream would be to have it run every season, using the elements of nature to support different activities for development. We just haven’t figured out how to navigate what to do when it’s negative 40 yet,” Joni said. “But each season has its own activities and its own equipment. When we build a fire, we use the firepit, s’mores sticks and camping chairs. When we build forts, we use fabric pieces and clothespins. When we smash pumpkins, we need pumpkins and hammers. We are continually switching what’s used and some is stored in the basement, some at my desk, and right now most of it lives in the trunk of my car!”
Having the new storage area will make things more accessible for Joni and her camp and allow her and her assistant to be more efficient with their time to concentrate on what is most important, which is getting kids outside.
“Any child is welcome at nature camp,” Joni said. “They don’t have to be a client at Beyond Boundaries or need to have ever received therapy—this is an opportunity to play outside and have fun. We work on so many skills through all of the nature activities, and we individualize everything. But what it really comes down to is that I want the kids to feel connection and joy. I greet every child as they arrive at nature camp and if I can promise you anything, they will feel loved and accepted, just as they are.” To learn more, visit houseofeverydaylearning.com
The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a nonprofit. Applications can be made at awesomefoundation.org/en/chapters/ cassclay