Licking Banana Slugs, Poking at Scat: Teaching that Creates a Connection to the Natural World for Campers

by Zayanne Thompson

I will never forget the moment when I first licked a banana slug. I remember the trail I was on — that it was a warm and sunny afternoon — and I can actually smell the carpet of thick wet leaves, humus, and decomposing logs. I can see my cabin group squealing with delight as I gently lifted the large yellow-brown slug off of a mossy log. And I definitely remember the taste and feel of the thick substance stuck on my tongue for the next two hours of our hike!

The discoveries from that year changed my life. I had no plans for a camp or teaching career, but here I am. Why do I remember that slug so vividly when I can't even remember the name of my college physics professor? I know there are many other people who could describe an equally memorable outdoor experience they had at camp. Camps provide a perfect opportunity to help children (and staff) create a meaningful and memorable connection to the outdoor environment.

It is common for camps to compartmentalize children's connection to the outdoors with "nature study" classes. We could, however, permeate our entire program with opportunities for summer campers to connect and interact with the natural world. Educational research suggests that camps are in a perfect position to have a meaningful learning impact on our campers. We should all re-focus on the fact that the outdoor environment of our camps is actually what creates the highly charged environment that facilitates that learning.

Why Camps and Environmental Education Are a Perfect Match for Lifelong Learning

Why was the "banana slug" experience so powerful? Think back to learning experiences that you remember. Where were you? Who was with you? What was your teacher like? Chances are that you think of those experiences as being fun, challenging, relevant to your life, or shared with you by a teacher who was enthusiastic about the material. In her article, "Brain-Compatible Learning," Jane McGeehan outlines three key findings from brain research that can help us to understand how we learn and how long-term memories are formed. As we consider the findings, it becomes clear that summer camp and environmental discovery are a perfect match.

Emotion: the gatekeeper to learning
New information must be useful or have an emotional value or the brain basically ignores it. According to Dr. Robert Sylwester, "Emotions drive attention which drives learning, memory, and just about everything else." Students in a classroom thrive when the teacher cares about them and builds a sense of community; when they know what to expect each day; and when they have constructive ways to resolve conflict.

Doesn't this sound like the goal of every cabin counselor for their campers? The teambuilding and cabin activities in summer camp actually facilitate an emotional state that enhances learning experiences. Add this to the emotional aspect of an outdoor experience (present because the novelty of the setting intensifies interest and therefore emotion), and we have an explanation why a cabin discovery hike can develop into a life-long connection with the environment.

Intelligence: a function of experience
Hands-on, experiential learning provides sensory input far beyond what anyone can get from a book, diagram, or verbal explanation. It is great to talk about how you compost at camp, but let the campers carry it to the garden and you will watch their wrinkle-faced looks of disgust transform into laughter and delight as they dig up earthworms and find corncobs from last Sundays dinner. Now they get it. They understand compost far better than from reading the poster that sits quietly in the dining hall.

Personal meaning: the key to memory
It is amazing to realize that the brain processes thousands of bits of information collected by all of our senses every second, and then tries to create meaning by sifting out what is relevant to daily life. In other words, we only remember what is important or meaningful to us. The brain asks, "Is this important to me? Do I care?" In order for information to carry meaning, the learner has to form a personal and emotional connection. To facilitate this, teachers need to know their students and build personal relationships in order to help them discover these connections. As we consider the relationships that good counselors build with their campers, and set that in a natural environment, we realize that our summer programs are perfectly poised to facilitate powerful environmental learning experiences.

Traditional outdoor activities like orienteering, outdoor cooking, and shelter building are good to have, but multiple opportunities for campers to interact with the natural environment in a meaningful way will make your summer program and their camp experiences great. The goals of camps, complemented by our rich natural settings, are too good a combination not to utilize. So what can we do to bring the environment more into focus?

Back to Nature

All good summer camps have carefully crafted schedules and lesson plans for teaching skills and leading activities. We want to make sure that our campers are safe, but still challenged. Character, leadership, and self-esteem have become core concepts for shaping our activities and programs. Adrenaline has become a litmus test in looking for new activities. But we often ignore the tremendous potential for meaningful experience and long-term impact of the traditional benefit that summer camp can offer to a child — true connection to the natural world.

It has been more than twenty years since Sharing Nature with Children was published and owned by every naturalist and environmental educator, but the five principles of outdoor teaching that Joseph Cornell proposed are still at the core of every good nature program. The good news is that you don't have to know a lot of names and scientific information in order to introduce children to the environment. Cornell suggests that focusing on facts can actually get in the way of having a rewarding outdoor experience. Good teachers respect their students, and they have a deep appreciation and enthusiasm for discovering nature. With that in mind, his suggestions are as follows:

  • Teach less, share more — Don't just focus on textbook facts. The adult leader should share their personal feelings and observations about what they see. It is fun to tell the story about Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae and how they took "a lichen" to each other to help kids remember what lichen is. But the kids always respond more when I share my own amazement at how lichen can cling to the tiniest cracks in a rock and get enough moisture to grow and survive. And how does it break down a strong rock into soil when I can't even scratch the surface? By sharing our personal feelings and respect for the earth, we allow children to explore and express their own feelings and perceptions. The names of things are not as important as what they do and how they affect other living things and natural processes. The focus on feeling also allows children to make a personal connection and feel like they are a part of the natural world, and not apart from it.
  • Be receptive — Listen with increased awareness. Every question, observation, or comment becomes a potential opportunity to discover something new in our surroundings. Respond to the moods and feelings of your group and teach to follow their natural curiosity. We always have written lesson plans, but a receptive teacher allows the lesson to flow with the expressed interest of the group. So what if you had planned to go on a creek walk. How were you supposed to know there would be a dead scrub jay on the edge of the field and your group would be fascinated? You now have a new lesson plan that they have chosen!
  • Focus attention without delay — Involve everyone and set the tone for discovery right away. Ask questions, point out sites, smells, and sounds. Find things that are interesting to the group and help them develop their observation skills. Be interested in their discoveries. One of the greatest pleasures I have had in teaching is taking children to tide pools. Even though I must have said, "Wow! You found a hermit crab!" hundreds of times, I felt the joy and excitement with each child as they reacted to a brand new experience. Magic!
  • Look and experience first; talk later — Direct experience is the key. There is no substitute for close observation. I have seen a child who cannot sit still for a traditional lesson, lay quietly for fifteen minutes to watch a salamander make its way slowly and deliberately down a steep bank to the creek. It didn't matter to him if he knew the five most interesting facts about salamanders or what species it was. What really matters is what that child discovered while he watched it, the many questions that followed, the observations and feelings he shared, and the fact that he will probably look at salamanders differently for the rest of his life.
  • A sense of joy should permeate the experience — Children will learn in a setting that is full of enthusiasm and fun. If you are interested in discovery, your campers will be too. Your enthusiasm is contagious and is one of the most powerful assets that you have as a teacher in sharing the natural world.

Staff Training and Mentoring

The best teaching about the environment happens during the entire camp experience, which means it starts during staff training. It is our job to create the sense of wonder in our staff that we wish to transfer to our campers. So where do we start?

First, take a look at your camp's mission statement. Spend some time talking to parents, campers, and camp staff to see how they think environmental discovery fits into your mission. For many camps it will be a part of responsibility, stewardship, or caring for God's creation. Once you have a clear vision of how learning about the natural world fits, you can start to live that part of the mission.

Now it is time to rediscover the natural areas of your camp. How long has it been since you noticed the way the light changes the trees throughout the day, watched the bats dart after insects over the lake at dusk, or picked apart scat that you found hiking on a distant trail? (Yes, I mean scat . . . as in poop.) Why pick apart scat? Because everything is connected, and scat is important — everybody poops, and I have yet to meet anyone who is not fascinated by poking at scat. It's a great way to get in touch with the sense of wonder and enthusiasm you wish to share with your staff!

Another way to infuse your summer staff with enthusiasm for the environment is to recruit and hire some summer staff who have experience teaching in residential environmental education programs. Don't just hire one person to be your summer naturalist. Hire staff with environmental backgrounds and interests to be lifeguards, general counselors, or soccer specialists. Most likely they already have enthusiasm for the natural world, and their attitudes will be contagious for other staff and campers.

Set a tone of natural discovery around traditional camp activities throughout the summer experience. Never pass up the chance to make an observation about your feelings about the natural world. Set a climate where staff feel comfortable talking about and sharing their experiences, and this will be passed along to campers. Look at how meal times, evening devotions, campfires, songs, and other camp traditions view the environment. Are they respectful? Are you following practices that reflect a caring attitude towards other living things? Children watch adults all the time. We should try to not only lead by positive example in our own attitudes and ability to connect with the natural world, but we should also create numerous opportunities to capitalize on the emotional setting and experiential opportunities to create life-long learning for our campers.

Licking banana slugs and poking at scat are important, because they are the kind of real and tangible experiences that we have to offer our campers. The environment is not a "thing," it is an intricate connection of life and processes of which we are a part. As John Muir once observed, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." If we create summer programs that express enthusiasm and interest in discovering our natural environment, we will create the potential for rich experiences that will provide our campers with meaningful learning opportunities that will shape their future learning and attitudes about our world.

References
Cornell, Joseph Bharat (1979). Sharing Nature With Children. Ananda Publications.
McGeehan, Jane (2001). "Brain-Compatible Learning," Green Teacher 64, Spring 2001.
Shellenberger, M. and Nordhaus, T. (2004). The Death of Environmentalism.
Sylwester, Robert, (1995). A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator Guide to the Human Brain.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Van Matre, Steve (1972). Acclimatization, American Camping Association, Inc.

Zayanne Thompson is the senior program director at YMCA Camp Surf, part of the camping branch of the YMCA of San Diego County, an ACA visitor, and is on the state board of the Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE) in California. As a credentialed teacher with a degree in environmental biology and advanced degree in education, she has worked with children in the outdoors through museums, the national park service, and for the last fifteen years in residential environmental education and summer camp programs.

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

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