An Editorial on the Nature of Things at Camp

by Jim Parry

Giving Kids a Natural World of Good — First in a Series of Six Articles


And this is our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
— from As You Like It by William Shakespeare

The natural environment creates a sense of awe and mystery for children as well as adults. From woodland creatures, mighty oaks, and mountains to the tiniest worm, nature through a child's eyes is wonder to behold. With this editorial, Camping Magazine begins a series of articles in the next five issues that seeks to bring the importance of environmental awareness to the fore. This comprehensive exposé of green architecture at camp, nature activities, the latest environmental research, and resources will help you integrate "green thinking" into your camp setting.

It's the right thing to do.

Isn't camp about providing the best things for children? Don't we all know that camp benefits kids in ways hard to measure, but those benefits endure?

Somehow, in our efforts to make camp more immediate and exciting, we have mitigated the integration of the outdoors in camp programs. As camps strive to keep up with modern times, getting nicer facilities and more types of recreation, campers are able to separate themselves from the natural world.

Scientists are documenting this change in our culture. In one study, approximately 60 percent of children reported that they had seen more animals on television and movies than they had in the wild. Only 40 percent of rural children reported they had ever spent more than half an hour in a wild place, and less than 20 percent of urban children have seen wildlife in a natural setting (Nabhan and Trimble 1998).

Fundamental to this cultural loss is the phenomenon Robert Michael Pyle has termed "the extinction of experience," or the termination of direct, frequent contact between children and wildlife. While many children may visit zoos, watch nature films, or cuddle with pets and stuffed animals, their responses to other species have become more "politically correct" but less grounded on their own visceral experiences. Pyle elaborates on the cycle of disaffection that is triggered by this extinction of experience. "As cities metastasizing suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of common habitat, leading to the loss of rarities. People who care, conserve; people who don't know, don't care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never seen a wren (Pyle 1993)?"

The media bombards us with environmental issues and debate so much, it becomes an issue to turn on or off, like a difficult class, or sales pitch, or "more politics." Our natural, justified response is to avoid it, numbed. But these matters are closer than ever. We see farm fields become housing developments. Increasing occurrences of asthma are linked to dirtier air. Traffic delays are more common. Places where adults once played are not safe for their children. Ironically, our response seems to be to increase our isolation from normal, natural things. Playing in the woods is replaced with soccer, and walking in the meadow is now a game of golf.

With computers and experts everywhere, we are not more ignorant; we simply are the victims of our choices. Eliot Wigginton, editor of the popular Foxfire series summarizes in this way: "We have become information-rich, and experience-poor (Wigginton 1972)."

It is no longer the most natural thing in the world to just enjoy being outside. Are we to the point where we "schedule in" the watching of a sunset, to marvel at the flight of a bird, or to pause for the din of katydids nearby? If camp is an integrated part of growing up, and I believe it is, then whenever possible we should take responsibility to build children and youths' relationship with the outdoors. Pun intended, being among nature should become natural again!

The Shrinking Nature Program

The camp business is different now. Imagine the counselors making announcements after lunch. One says he's playing a camp version of Quiddich. Another invites everyone to the water slide. After so many other thrills, another counselor says she will take the kids for a walk in the forest. So it is, we compete for campers' thrills! Giving choice to campers, "selling the nature program," compared to skateboarding or dance class is difficult. A brochure photo of a camper walking in the woods is nice, but compare that to a hot- dogger on water skis, a costumed clown, a hip-hop dance, a high-speed zip line, or a camp theater production. What's the message? Enjoying nature is a choice, like ordering from a menu. Nature programs are broccoli among fast food burgers and fries.

Some campers do make the choice, and really enjoy their experiences. Many campers find great role models while participating in nature activities, or somehow their personality fits well in what is usually a quieter program. And certainly many whole camps succeed admirably with excellent nature programs.

For so many people the expertise is hard to find. Schools don't teach the names of trees or identification of birds and frogs. Environmental education takes a back seat to reading, writing, and arithmetic for counselors as well as campers. Camps own and act as gateways to thousands, even millions of acres of natural space. Even a mowed yard can build an experience of outdoor love in some young heart, if it is nurtured well.

The Goal

The goal is to instill a more positive relationship with the natural world. We should add this to the many purposes of camp, all of which are crucial to healthy child development. There are many means to this end, and many of them have fallen out of fashion for political or other reasons.

We do not have to spike the trees, carry protest signs, or write angry letters to our representatives. We need not join a radical club, take grueling trips to the wilderness, or issue a decree that all chemicals are evil. It is not necessary to force everyone to become a vegetarian. We can avoid a return to the Stone Age. This is not an extreme sport. It does not require a political affiliation. A moderate, more publicly acceptable approach is not that difficult. In fact, it fulfills our obligation to the public.

It's not all bad. Environmental programs seem to be on the rise nationally. Through the efforts of schools, some children have been in more wild places or are more ready to recycle than their parents. Baby boomers and their children are visiting parks and nature centers in growing numbers. It is not hard to find books and resources, and more on the topic of environmental preservation. Membership in the National Association for Interpretation is higher than ever.

Camp: A Blend of Environmental and Developmental Learning

Still, these are programs; things we do . . . . yet, we offer something else. We offer the camp experience. Camp and its ecological appeal offer us an advantage in what we can achieve in environmental education. The American Camp Association is currently studying how "Camp Gives Kids a World of Good®." It seems that current environmental education and child development research are largely separate fields. Ideally, the camp experience blends these. That magic, hard-to-measure aspect of camp includes new chances to succeed, exposure to role models, new friends, new skills and experiences — all taking place closer to the natural world than any other learning environment. Studies on what motivates people to care about the environment often cite (1) time spent outdoors and (2) the influences of adults, as having the most impact. Does that say "camp," or what?

Rekindling the Natural Relationship at Camp

While the camp experience can become a natural blend for developmental and environmental learning for campers, often children find too much comfort in front of the computer and television screens. Could it be that we have become a society that hates spiders, dirty jeans, poison ivy, and mosquitoes more than we love sunsets, robins, and shade trees? It seems we satisfy ourselves with golf courses over meadows and videos instead of rain on our faces.

It's easy to presume that camps are an antidote to this mode of thinking. After all, most camps emphasize the outdoors. But there is a great danger in our assuming that being in the natural world automatically builds a relationship with it.

Camp nature centers are getting fewer and farther between. We hire more sports or arts leaders than naturalists. Are camp directors chasing the trends and forgetting those values that inspired them to get into this business in the first place? Water skiing doesn't teach that a lake is an ecosystem. Did anyone notice the crickets chirping during the evening program? Is the cabin group walking just to get there, or will they see the wildflowers?

We simply need to be deliberate about loving the natural world and share this with campers. We know that camp makes profound memories that change lives. Children gain "hard skills," such as kicking a soccer ball and learning to trim a sail. They gain "soft skills," like making friends, independence, honesty, and responsibility. In this fast paced, man-made world, we need to include a positive relationship with nature on the list of essential outcomes for a camp experience. It is just as important that children have good memories of nature as their memories of their bunk mates, counselors, songs, and games.

Anna Botsford Comstock in her Handbook of Nature Study says, "Let us not inflict permanent injury on the child by turning him away from nature instead of toward it. However, if the love of nature is in the teacher's heart, there is no danger; such a teacher, no matter by what method, takes the child gently by the hand and walks with him in paths that lead to the seeing and comprehending of what he may find beneath his feet or above his head. And these paths, whether they lead among the lowliest plants, or whether to the stars, finally converge and bring the wandered to that serene peace and hopeful faith that they are working units of this wonderful universe."

Botsford Comstock, A. (1939). Handbook of Nature Study. Comstock Publishing.
Nabhan, G.P. and Trimble S. (1998). The Geography of Childhood. Beacon Press. pp. 87, 91.
Pyle, R.M. (1993). The Thunder Tree. Houghton Mifflin.
Wigginton, E. ed. (1972). Foxfire Series. "Preface." Anchor Doubleday Books.

Jim Parry is the president of American Camp Association, Indiana, and executive director of YMCA Camp Potawotami, a branch of the YMCA of Greater Fort Wayne, Indiana, and has worked in outdoor education for various camps. He was also the summer nature program director at Camp St. Croix and loved nature programs as a Boy Scout.

Originally published in the 2005 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.