Camp Directors’ Beliefs Regarding Nature-Deficit Disorder and Camp

by Penny A. James; Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D.; and Barry Garst, Ph.D.

Two Views A group of eight-year-old boys stand on the shore of a pristine lake skipping rocks. They are laughing and shouting challenges and accolades to each other as they compete to see who can skip a rock the most times before it sinks into the dark abyss of the lake. The furthest thing from their young minds is "how" the rocks keep from sinking. They just know that if they toss the rocks one way, they watch in frustration as they sink out of sight, and if they toss them another way, they skip victoriously across the water creating a series of intersecting ripples that provide indisputable evidence of their accomplishment and skill. It begins to rain, and the counselor suggests they go back to the cabins until the weather subsides. The boys protest and continue to skip stones. Since they are now wet anyway, they walk into the lake in a quest for the perfect skipping stone. Now waist deep in the water, they taunt each other about who amongst them is capable of catching a fish with their bare hands.

A group of eight-year-old boys sit in their cabin because it is raining outside. A couple of the boys are playing cards, but most are sitting on their bunks playing hand-held video games and listening to music through the headphones of their iPod® nanos. The counselor suggests the boys go outside and take a hike to learn about what the forest is like when it rains. There is a resounding rumble as of distant thunder as several of the boys mumble under their breath their sentiments that the counselor must surely have lost his mind if he thought they were going outside in the rain. Yeah, right. Why would they leave the comfort of the cabin and the fun they are having playing their games to go on a boring hike — even if it were not raining? Shortly thereafter, the counselor informs them that it has stopped raining, and they should go outside and play soccer because in an hour they must be at the waterfront for a lesson about the effects of acid rain on freshwater fish. The boys grumble and continue playing their games. One boy asks if they have to attend the waterfront program, "Who cares about stupid fish anyway?" His peers chime in with a supportive chorus of "Yeah, who cares?"

Challenging the Image of Traditional Outdoor Camps

These vignettes depict the conflicting images of camp portrayed by Richard Louv (2005) in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv's message struck a chord within the camp community. For camp directors and program staff working with children at camp, someone had finally validated what we intuitively knew to be true: children are not as connected to the natural world as they were in previous generations.

Louv's (2005) message launched a national movement to reconnect children with nature, and camp is leading the charge in the battle to combat nature-deficit disorder. The American Camp Association (ACA) partnered with the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) to promote the importance of children having meaningful experiences in nature (see sidebar on page 39 for more information about C&NN). ACA launched the "Green Spoken Here" initiative and added an environmental resources link to Louv's Web site for camp professionals and parents. Numerous articles have appeared in Camping Magazine touting the benefits of incorporating "hands-on" environmental education and nature-based activities at camp (see the November/December 2007 issue of Camping Magazine).

While on the one hand championing the role of camp in fostering children's connection to nature, Louv also suggested that camp is no longer the bastion of children's active engagement with the natural world. He stated: "The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, ‘summer camp' is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. (p.2)"

What Do Camp Directors Believe Is Going on Here?

Louv's portrayal of camps today challenged both the traditional definition of camp and the central importance of the natural environment to the camp experience. Camp has used the natural environment to provide opportunities for youth development and outdoor recreation for nearly 150 years. Has the traditional emphasis on nature-based activities disappeared from the camp environment? Who better to address this question than camp directors? We asked camp directors what they believed about the state of children's relationships with the natural world today and the role of camp in providing nature-based experiences for campers.

One hundred and forty-four camp directors took the time in May 2007 to complete an online survey developed in collaboration with members of the ACA Children, Nature, and Camps Task Force. The purpose of this survey was threefold: (a) to determine if camp directors agreed with Louv (2005) that children are less connected to nature today; (b) to examine the role of camp in fostering nature-based experiences for campers; and (c) to determine what directors believed were contributing causes for any disconnect (i.e., decline in children's interest and participation in nature-based activities) between children and nature. Camp directors were generally representative of ACA membership (see sidebar on page 36 for more information about survey participants).

The majority of camp directors participating in this survey worked in camps where the primary programming focus was traditional outdoor as opposed to sport or other nonoutdoor specialties. Whether the predominance of a traditional program focus reflects the overall ACA camp membership, or whether camp directors of traditional outdoor camps were more inclined to respond to a survey about "nature" is not known. However, similarities in the camp directors' responses far exceeded any differences, regardless of the program emphasis at their camps.

Camp directors appear to agree with Louv about the state of children's relationship to nature today. Most camp directors (88 percent) agreed with the statement, "Children today are less connected to the environment than they were twenty years ago."

Who Participated
Camp directors completing the online survey: 144
Camp Characteristics
Residential/Day Camp
Day: 17 percent
Residential: 59 percent
Both Day & Residential: 24 percent
For Profit: 21 percent
Nonprofit: 36 percent
Religious: 17 percent
Agency/Government Sponsored: 26 percent
Primary Program Focus
Traditional Outdoor: 86 percent
Other: 14 percent

Camp Location

Urban/Suburban: 21 percent

Rural: 59 percent
Wilderness/Remote: 20 percent
Camper Demographics
Camper Ethnicities (at least 25 percent of camper population — could select more than one)
African American, Black: 30 percent
Arab American, Arab: 2 percent
Asian American, Asian: 9 percent
European American, Caucasian: 92 percent
Latina American, Hispanic, Latino: 22 percent
Native American, American Indian, Alaska Native: 3 percent
Camper Gender
Boys Only: 7 percent
Girls Only: 21 percent
Co-educational: 72 percent
Camper Abilities
Campers of All Abilities: 41 percent
Campers With Disabilities: 6 percent
Campers Without Disabilities: 53 percent
Camper Family Income
Low: 16 percent
Middle: 66 percent
High: 18 percent

The Role of Camp
We asked what camp directors believed the role of camp to be in fostering nature-based experiences for campers. The majority of camp directors believed that fostering children's connection to nature requires purposeful programming, that opportunities to connect with the natural environment at camp are important for children, and that camp plays a more important role today in fostering children's connection to nature than in the past.

No differences were found in agreement with these statements based on camp affiliation; day/resident camp; programming focus (traditional outdoor or not); camp location; or camper attributes of income level, gender, age, or abilities. Camp directors demonstrated greater agreement with these statements if the majority of their programming occurred outdoors, campers spent more than half the day outdoors, nature was perceived to be important to fulfilling the camp's mission, the camp had stated goals related to nature, or believed that nature opportunities influenced parent's decisions about sending their children to camp.

To better understand the role nature plays at camps today, we asked questions about program philosophy, content, and specific activities. Regardless of programming focus (traditional outdoor or not), almost all (94 percent) camp directors reported that their campers spend more than four hours outdoors every day, and 83 percent stated that their programs were conducted primarily outdoors. The only significant difference between camps with a traditional outdoor program emphasis and those with other program emphases was related to the camp's mission statements. Approximately three-fourths of the camp directors at camps with a traditional outdoor focus and almost half of the directors at camps with other emphases had mission statements that explicitly referenced nature. Nature remains important enough to be included in mission statements, and this finding runs counter to Louv's suggestion that nature may no longer be as important to camp as it once was.

Traditional Versus Specialized Programs
Were there differences between the beliefs of directors of traditional outdoor camps compared to directors of camps with other programming emphases (e.g., sport or other nonoutdoor camps) regarding whether camps should "change with the times" and offer programming better suited to the contemporary interests of today's campers? Only a quarter of the camp directors believed that camps should diversify programming toward contemporary camper interests. Looking only at the responses of directors from camps without a traditional outdoor program focus, belief in the need to diversify increased to slightly more than one half. In terms of current camp programming, more than three-quarters of all camps had established programming goals related to nature, including two-thirds of the camps with programming emphases other than traditional outdoor.

Camp directors were asked to rate how important the natural environment was to specific camp activities ranging from (a) not at all — activity could just as well be conducted indoors; (b) somewhat — activity could be conducted indoors but would alter campers' experience; and (c) essential — activity cannot be conducted indoors. More than two-thirds of the camp directors believed that the natural environment was essential for conducting: adventure activities, non-motorized boating, hiking, horseback riding, motorized recreation, primitive skills, and swimming. Approximately half of the directors believed that the natural environment was not at all important for conducting arts and crafts. These results clearly showed that nature continues to play an important role in camp programming today.

Contributing Causes of Nature Deficit
Much has been written by Louv and others about what contributes to children's disconnect from nature, but we wondered what camp directors believed to be contributing causes of nature-deficit disorder. Questions about possible causes were collapsed into four categories: barriers, fear, personal interests, and technology (see sidebar on page 38). Camp director agreement exceeded 60 percent for ten of thirteen possible causes of children's disconnect with nature. Only lack of transportation, parental fear of wilderness, and fear of litigation received less agreement. Camp directors believed electronics posed the greatest concern (85 percent) for why children's interest and participation in nature-based activities may be declining. Decreased access to natural spaces and children's lack of time were tied, with three-quarters of camp directors agreeing that these were significant barriers to children's development of connections to nature.

Only three significant differences were found relative to camp directors' beliefs about possible causes for children's disconnection from nature. Camp directors who agreed with the fear category were more likely to do so if their clientele included adults and families. Research has shown that parental anxiety about children's safety can be a major obstacle to children's outdoor play (Valentine and McKendrick, 1997) and that contemporary parents perceive their children as less resilient and more in need of protection than parents in previous generations (Karsten and van Vliet, 2006). Camp directors of programs for adults and families may have had opportunities for prolonged contact with parents and therefore more in-depth conversations and observations related to developing a greater awareness of parental concerns for children's safety in outdoor environments.

The directors of boys-only camps believed that the personal interest category was less of a concern than did directors of coeducational or girls camps. Questions in this category related to whether children lack the prerequisite knowledge or skill to participate in outdoor recreation activities, lack the imagination or creativity necessary for unstructured outdoor play, and/or lack a general interest in spending time in the outdoors. This finding suggests that some camp directors may perceive girls as being less interested in nature-based activities and spending time outdoors. Perhaps some gender stereotypes persist in camps. Girls may not be socialized toward nature in other areas of their lives, but camp staff can help girls see that being outdoors is just as natural and enjoyable for them as it is for the boys.

Directors of camps who primarily served campers from lower income families also showed differences on the personal interest category in comparison to those working with high income populations. Children from lower-income families may have fewer opportunities to experience nature in comparison to the higher-income campers. Other researchers have suggested that a lack of direct experiences with nature can lead to negative perceptions of the outdoors (Bixler, Floyd, & Hammitt, 1997). Therefore, possibly in addition to family income, other factors such as camper residence (e.g., urban or suburban) or ethnicity, may be contributing to this finding. Taken together, these results highlight the importance of providing access to camp for all youth.

The overall results of this study showed that most camp directors who participated in this survey valued the outdoors as an but they also acknowledged that a disconnect between children and nature persists. So, what can camp directors do?

Practical Applications

1. All camps can engage children in the natural world. While not all camps have traditional outdoor programming emphases, there are many ways for all camps to provide opportunities for children to engage the natural world in meaningful ways. All campers should be encouraged to be good stewards of the environment by stressing the importance of not taking resources for granted, not littering, employing the 3 R's (reduce, reuse, recycle), and so forth. See the November/December 2007 issue of Camping Magazine for more ideas. Have your camp take the ACA "Green Spoken Here" pledge (

2. Nature connections can be made without formal programming. Connections to nature occur whenever campers have opportunities to feel the grass between their toes, lie on their backs and watch the clouds, or just sit quietly for a moment and feel the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the breeze on their faces. Camp staff should be encouraged to take advantage of teachable moments that arise like staring, with their campers, in amazement at a colorful bird, butterfly, or bug that a child has discovered. Whether staff know the genus, phylum, and species of every living creature in creation may not be as important as the need for campers to foster interest, curiosity, and exploration of the natural world.

These serendipitous events can instill what Rachel Carson (1965) called a "sense of wonder" about nature. One of the best lessons to teach campers may be that nature is not "out there" but right here—in the air breathed, the food eaten, and the ground walked on everyday! Campers need to understand that people are not apart from nature but are a part of nature. These direct experiences foster children's emotional bond with the natural world, which is at the heart of developing a lifelong connection to nature.

3. Purposeful programming can be undertaken to increase opportunities for children to explore and learn about nature. Before investing a great deal of time and money on environmental education resources (e.g., books and supplies), pause for a moment and reflect on the camp's mission and goals. Choose materials and plan opportunities for campers that meet program goals and objectives. Many environmental education resources are available, including prepackaged curriculums like Project Wild and Project Learning Tree, that identify appropriate lessons by both topic and age. The realm of outdoor and environmental education is broad and can produce a variety of outcomes. Many resources are readily available and affordable. Keep the camp's mission and program goals in mind in planning activities appropriate for the camp environment.

4. Environmental education at camp can fall into a specific educational domain (i.e., cognitive, affective, or physical). For example, do you want campers to feel more connected to the environment? If so, tap the affective domain. Teaching "facts" about the environment, which would be a function of the cognitive domain, may not meet that goal. For example, camp programming often includes lessons geared at teaching environmental ethics and behavior, such as Leave No Trace (LNT). These programs are effective at teaching children to be good stewards of the environment, but the focus is on teaching knowledge (cognitive) and performance of skills (physical). Developing an affective sense of connection to the environment may occur as a secondary outcome, but it likewise may not. Louv referred to the work of many researchers and child and youth development professionals in stressing that direct experiences that afford children some degree of independence, exploration, and creativity are essential to fostering children's connection to nature.

LNT is an exemplary form of experiential nature-based programming. However, in using LNT or similar programs, staff should give careful consideration to the messages that campers receive about their relationship to the natural world. Particularly with younger children, caution must be exercised to ensure that they do not receive the unintended message that "people do not belong in nature." When we tell children they should, "Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. Keep only memories," we are suggesting that children should "look but not touch" nature, which runs contrary to their desire to actively engage their world. Children may misinterpret the message to mean that nature is not a place in which they should play, and as Louv cautions, children hear well.

5. Environmental education must be age appropriate. A classic book, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education by David Sobel (1996) remains one of the best resources available for camp directors and others interested in providing age-appropriate environmental programming. This book is short, to the point, and unequivocal in stating that "one size does not fit all" in environmental education. Programs such as LNT are appropriate for older children but may not be for younger children if they have not yet developed an enduring emotional bond with the natural world. The latter can only be acquired through meaningful direct experiences with nature.

6. Camp directors with the goal of fostering children's connection to nature must balance structured programming. Generally programming should be geared toward the attainment of cognitive knowledge with opportunities for children to engage the natural world in meaningful ways. Program goals can be shifted toward promoting naturebased experiences that are flexible enough to empower children in their creative and independent exploration of nature.

Student-centered learning is a central tenet of experiential education that perhaps seems to run more contrary to customary views of education and programming than most. Letting go of some of the control and responsibility for camper learning can create some discomfort and uncertainty for camp directors and programming staff. However, the more student-centered the outdoor education programming, the more effective it will be in fostering children's connection to nature as they learn about the world in which they live. Experiential programming creates an environment where children are motivated to learn.

Reflect for a moment upon your own childhood experiences in nature. Getting dirty; overturning rocks and logs to discover what lives there; chasing and catching frogs, butterflies, and salamanders; picking wild flowers; and building forts/shelters awakened the senses and helped us to relate to the natural world. Today these childhood activities are considered "consumptive" outdoor behavior because of their impact on natural resources, implying that these activities are to be avoided rather than valued. How can children's connection to nature be restored if they are denied the childhood opportunities that led to our own sense of oneness with the natural world?

Kellert (2002) provides another perspective on these consumptive experiences that is perhaps not so disconcerting. He suggests that structured programming results in "indirect" experiences with nature while informal explorations of the natural world create the "direct" experiences that contribute to children's cognitive, affective, physical, and social development. These direct experiences in nature are more akin to unstructured play than formal education.

Finally, consider how to balance children's desire for direct experiences with nature against the need for teaching environmentally responsible behaviors. Preserving a camp's natural resources is critical to the camp's continued operation and success. However, equally important is the need to foster children's emotional connection to nature. Children who develop a connection to nature are more likely to demonstrate pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood (Kals, Schumacher, & Montada, 1999).

Balancing the Goals

Balancing the goals of environmental stewardship with children's need to directly experience the natural world may require camp directors to consider designating a well-defined and bounded area where some consumptive nature-based activities (e.g., mud slides, tree climbing, and foraging) are permissible. Boundaries where such consumptive activities are permitted could be physical or programmatic. As campers learn the rules about when, where, how, and why they are allowed to participate in certain outdoor activities at camp, they gain the experience to understand how to care for nature as well as an appreciation of our role as a part of nature and not apart from it.

Nature has always been central to most camp experiences. Camp has the potential to combat nature-deficit disorder. The camp directors we surveyed believed that camps play an important and ongoing role in providing opportunities for children to connect to nature. ACA has renewed its commitment to promoting outdoor opportunities for children, and camp professionals have an important role to play in restoring children's connection to nature. For more ideas about what you can do, visit ACA's Web page for nature education resources at

Factors Contributing to Child/Nature Disconnect
Barriers: Decreased access to nature, decreased time, decreased transportation, lack of environmental knowledge, and lack of outdoor recreation knowledge.

Fear: Parental fear of strangers, parental fear of wilderness, and fear of litigation by either parents or organizations.

Personal Interests: Lack of imagination/creativity for unstructured outdoor play, lack of interest in being outdoors, and discomforts associated with outdoors (e.g., weather or bugs).

Technology: Greater interest in electronics/media, and decreased interaction with environment for survival (e.g., farm families).


C&NN is a nonprofit organization created to encourage and support people and organizations seeking to reconnect children with nature. They provide access to the latest news and research related to children and nature. Visit the C&NN Web site at:


ACA Position Statement on Children and Nature
The American Camp Association® (ACA) believes that young people benefit emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually from spending time in close contact with the natural world. This critical connection is essential to healthy development. ACA supports and actively participates in public and private partnerships and collaborations that make positive nature-based opportunities available to children, youth, and families. Furthermore, ACA will advocate on behalf of and in cooperation with children and youth to develop and mobilize resources that introduce, educate, and personally connect children with the natural environment.

Bixler, R. D., Floyd, M. F., & Hammitt, W. E. (1997). Environmental socialization. Environment and Behavior, 34, 795-818.
Carsen, R. (1965). The sense of wonder. NY: Harper & Row.
Karsten, L., & van Vliet, W. (2006). Increasing children's freedom of movement: Introduction. Children, Youth and Environments, 16(1), 2006.
Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.
Kals, E., Schumacher, D., & Montada, L. (1999). Emotional affinity toward nature as a motivational basis to protect nature. Environment and Behavior, 31(2), 178-202.
Kellert, S. (2002). Experiencing nature: Affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children. In P. H. Kahn, Jr. & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and nature (pp.117-151). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Sobel, D. (1996). Beyond ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education. Great Barrington, MA: Orion Society.
Valentine, G., & McKendrick, J. (1997). Children's outdoor play: Exploring parental concerns about children's safety and the changing nature of childhood. Geoforum, 28(2), 219-235.

Penny A. James is a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University and former camp director, most recently of Grands Camp, an intergenerational grandparent-grandchild camp conducted at Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. She has been a member of the American Camp Association (ACA) for eight years. She holds a B.S. in psychology (child/adolescent development) and an M.S. in recreation (outdoor/environmental education). E-mail:

Karla A. Henderson, Ph.D., is a professor at North Carolina State University and has been associated with ACA for almost thirty years. She has conducted research on camping as well as served on various boards including Education and Research. She is currently serving on the ACA Board of Directors. E-mail: karla_

Barry Garst, Ph.D., is ACA's director of research application. Prior to joining ACA, he served as an assistant professor and extension specialist in 4-H youth development at Virgina Tech. He has worked in administrative and programming positions at camp and his current research interests include the multiple meanings of nature-based experiences and youth development outcomes of camp experiences. E-mail:

Originally published in the 2008 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.