Nature IS the Program

by Virginia D. Bourdeau

The question, "What do I need to teach nature programs at camp?" is generally followed by a statement like (panic rising), "I can't afford to buy a whole bunch of stuff!" As an extension 4-H specialist for natural science programs, I get this type of inquiry from new nature program counselors and colleagues in the camp community at least once a year. For some reason, their first vision of a camp nature program is a lab filled with microscopes and equipment. Is that the nature program you remember from your first camp experience? Was the focus inside in a "lab" or outside in nature?

Here are some steps to consider for creating or revitalizing a nature program.

STEP 1 Review Your Camp's Mission Statement

Your executive director, board of directors, staff, and other stakeholders spent a great deal of time developing your organization's mission statement. Here is a chance to put it into action. The broad goals of the nature experience may include teaching stewardship of resources, respect for nature, and respect for the camp family or our human place in nature. For some camps, it could include a religious message. For others, that isn't appropriate. How can your organization's mission statement assist you in selecting camper outcomes for your nature program?

STEP 2 Know Your Campers

During pre-camp staff training, you receive information about the demographics of the audience the camp serves. Directors also provide specific information about individual campers with special needs. In planning and leading a camp nature program, additional information will be helpful and it can come directly from your campers. On the first day of the nature program, ask your groups the following questions:

  • Have you been camping (or to this camp) before?
  • What do know about nature (or a specific topic)?
  • What do you want to know?
  • What don't you like or fear?
  • What have you seen so far that is interesting?

A flexible nature program will take the answers to these questions into consideration to make the experience successful and meaningful for all campers.

STEP 3 Inventory Your Resources

If your camp scored a "Yes" on ACA Standards PD-2 Outdoor Opportunities and PD-3 Environmental Practices, you have the basic resources you need for a nature program. It is not necessary for nature program leaders to know the name of every plant, bird, and animal at camp. You can increase the sense of discovery with campers by showing them you are learning and building a relationship with nature as well.

Focus programs on the variety of natural areas available. If your camp is in a forested area, it may seem that you should teach forestry. Classic forestry programs have included measuring a tree's height with a forester's stick and then calculating the number of boards which can be cut from the harvested tree. This is certainly an option if it fits with your mission.

Forests are diverse places. Different species of trees and plants may grow on slopes which face different directions. Meadows and marshes are found near lakes. Visit the possible program areas at your camp, and inventory the natural resources each provides. Be aware of the sights, smells, sounds, and temperature and humidity differences in each area. How are the areas different at different times of the day? Are there plants and trees that were or are used by Native Americans? Does the osprey look for fish over the lake before breakfast? Is there a place on the rocky slope where lizards bask at midday? Do bats swoop for insects in the evening twilight? Are animal tracks left in the mud by the stream? How might these opportunities contribute to a camper's nature experience?

Urban camps have opportunities, too. A site with garden areas can include worm bins for composting meal wastes and the study of insects and birds. Pollinators like bees and butterflies are at work, lady bugs or praying mantids are on patrol, and water features draw in birds to view. A whole ecosystem is available for discovery!

In addition to the natural resources of the site, it is helpful to have some equipment. Your camp may have a well-stocked nature shack full of field guides, nets, binoculars, and hand lenses. You may have a budget to purchase some equipment. Or you may have none of these.

Using equipment can be fun. It can also get in the way of a quality nature experience. An example is aquatic nets. In the hands of campers they become frog catchers. If the campers' focus at the pond session becomes the number of frogs they can catch, it is unlikely other outcomes will be achieved. Choose equipment that will enhance the experience, and be clear about the rules for use before arriving at the activity site.

STEP 4 Be Intentional About Your Program Themes and Outcomes

Nature program time should change campers, not just fill up time on the daily schedule.

You must begin with what the campers already know or have experienced to design a meaningful learning experience. You will need to use the information from Step 2 to answer the question, "What are campers like today?"

Now ask yourself, "How do I want campers to be different after they have participated in the nature program?" and "How will I help campers have a personal experience with nature?" You will identify specific outcomes you want your campers to achieve in your nature program by answering these questions.

It is helpful to focus the nature program by choosing a few specific themes. But what is a theme? A theme is not a topic. A topic is forests or birds. A theme about forests could be, "Forests are diverse places," or "Birds' bodies reflect their habitat." This theme begins the story you will tell campers. What message or moral will your story teach about forest diversity?

Planned outcomes for a forest diversity lesson could include campers' abilities to:

  • recognize the diverse plant communities at camp;
  • explain the different survival needs of some plants and animals; and
  • understand how diversity makes both the forest and human community stronger.

STEP 5 Create Teachable Moments

Teachable moments are generally defined as unplanned happenings that provide a teacher the opportunity to make a personal connection between learners and the experience. Learners are more receptive to learning because of the experience. Teachable moments in nature foster a relationship with nature. It is the "Oh!" you hear from chilly campers when the osprey dives, then rises from the lake with a fish in its talons.

Use your knowledge of your campers and your inventory of the camp's natural resources to place your campers where the action is, where teachable moments happen.

STEP 6 Live Your Message

The nature experience doesn't need to begin and end with the nature program. The whole camp experience can contribute to campers developing a relationship with nature. If the themes and outcomes of the nature program are based on the camp's mission, these can easily be taken up in other program areas. Arts and crafts programs can incorporate a respect for nature in the projects and materials chosen. Recreation programs at the waterfront can protect frogs and other wildlife from splashing canoe paddles and thrown rocks. Horse programs can clean stalls and store manure properly to avoid contaminating surface water. Food service and maintenance departments can ensure that waste is minimized and recyclable materials are recycled. Office managers can contribute to recycling too.

Nature Treasure Bottles
Developing a respect for nature requires building a relationship with nature. This is best done outside, experiencing nature. While specialized equipment and books can enrich program delivery it is not essential to learning about nature. A tool I particularly like is to have campers create Nature Treasure Bottles. These are "baby soda bottles" campers wear on a yarn string around their necks. Baby soda bottles are 2-liter soda bottles which have not been inflated. They resemble test tubes with screw-on lids, but their walls are thick enough to withstand being dropped a time or two. Campers write their names on the lid with a permanent marker. Variously colored pony beads are added to the string each day of nature study to indicate the sessions campers have completed. For example, they add a blue bead after the water study activity and a green bead after the forest activity.

During the camp program, campers collect and preserve memories of their experiences with nature in their Nature Treasure Bottles. These may be drawings of leaves or bark rubbings from a nature session. They may be items found at other times such as an acorn, an empty snail shell, or a feather. Live plant or animal materials are not to be collected. Each Nature Treasure Bottle is a personal expression of a camper's experience. When you see the Treasure Bottles being created and worn by your campers you will know they have achieved the outcomes of your nature program. Nature is the program.

Virginia D. Bourdeau is an extension specialist with the Oregon State University Department of 4-H Youth Development. She is responsible for state-wide leadership of the 4-H natural science, camping, and horticulture programs and has authored or co-authored five 4-H leader publications. Bourdeau has worked in the camp profession for twenty-six years — for the last nineteen years at the Oregon 4-H Education Center. Her e-mail is

Originally published in the 2005 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.