The Nature of Trailside Discovery: Community-Based Learning Programs in an Environmental Setting

by Thomas Burek

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



Climbing to the top of a peak in the Chugach Mountains, studying Native Alaskan arts and culture, preparing for a wilderness-based camping trip, making new friends, and discovering that you might do something that previously, you never thought possible, all become a reality when you become a Trailside Discovery camp participant . . . .

The above passage can be found in the 2005 Trailside Discovery Camp brochure. Our implicit message is that we offer campers a challenging, fun, and unique program. Also implied is the truism that's an integral part of our teaching philosophy: the natural environment is an ideal site for community-based learning — learning in which an emphasis is placed on stewardship. Our more altruistic focus, which is on teaching campers to use resources wisely, benefits the entire community.

A growing concern of mine and the other members of the Trailside staff is that we as a society are becoming increasingly more distant from the natural world. We agree wholeheartedly with Robert Michael Pyle, who calls this cultural loss "the extinction of experience" or the termination of direct, frequent, contact between children and wildlife. There are, we have realized, dire implications inherent to what we at Trailside Discovery refer to as "disconnection." We have observed that when an individual becomes detached from the environment, they tend to feel less enthused about taking care of it. A case in point: Quite often, this disconnect is the end result of a reliance upon machine-powered vehicles, (such as 4-wheelers) many of which are loud and chew up soft stream beds. The vehicle operators may not realize that they're destroying animal habitat. In cases of extreme disconnect, they might not even care. We're in the business of teaching kids to both care and to think about the nature-related consequences of their actions.

Gone, some think, are the days in which children reveled in the sight of a field of brightly-colored wildflowers or gasped in delight as they watched a bald eagle hover overhead. "Some think" are key words here. We provide children with nature-based opportunities, and just as important, assist them in developing the attributes that will later enable them to work alongside others in a nonadversarial and mutually beneficial fashion. We're now seeing the fruits of twenty-two years of efforts. Collectively and individually, our campers are making informed decisions about how to use resources wisely.

Our success has, to a large part, been based upon the fact that each summer we focus on creating an atmosphere that's conducive to expanding interest, appreciation, and knowledge of the natural environment. Natural science, natural history, and outdoor skills and leadership are all emphasized.

Although our camp is situated in an environmental setting, we don't have a political agenda. Our goal, which is written into our mission statement, is "to provide a broad range of outdoor education experiences for students of all ages, from all economic, social, and cultural backgrounds.

Working closely with the Partners in Homeless Education, the ARC of Anchorage, the Anchorage School District, and the Department of Family and Youth Services, we have, in the past few years offered scholarships to seventy-five children from differing socio-economic backgrounds. This then, has enabled all to experience what might otherwise be a given for a chosen few.

The Trailside Discovery Curriculum

Trailside Discovery is owned and operated by The Alaska Center for the Environment (ACE), a nonprofit organization that has been in existence since 1971. The focus of our south central Alaska curriculum is community–based environmental education.

The camp began in 1982, as a pilot program located in Anchorage’s Tozier Field and soon moved to Alaska Pacific University, where 250 children enrolled in our summer program. In the 2004 summer camp program, 1,700 children participated. Trailside Discovery provides day camp and wilderness-based camp experiences for four- to seventeen-year-olds. Our current staff consists of thirteen leaders, thirteen assistants, and three program managers.

Our structured programs echo the premise of many educators, such as Karl Rohnke, who assert that children learn developmentally. This is why our experientially-based curriculum caters to the learning abilities of differing age groups. Counselors guide the learning process by asking the camper relevant questions and shaping the curriculum to the individual's given interests.

Four-and Five-Year-Olds
We've designed and implemented a kindergarten program because we've found that those in this age group are receptive to learning about the natural environment. Our goals for preschool and kindergartners are easily obtainable: we want the young ones to feel good about being among their peers and to enjoy being outdoors. To this end, children hike through forests and discover creeks while investigating the creatures that live in them. Games, stories, and hands-on activities comprise our Water Wonders, Flying Friends, Creepy Crawlers, and Forest Prowlers programs.

Six- and Seven-Year-Olds
Our six- and seven-year-old curriculum complements campers' age-specific interests and is more experiential than our four- and five-year-old curriculum. Campers taking the Amazing Animals, Woodland Wizards, and Creek Seekers programs track creatures, hunt for edible plants, and build their own beaver lodge, putting their new-found abilities as budding naturalists to the test.

Eight- and Nine-Year-Olds
Those in the eight- and nine-year-old range can elect to take The Campbell Creek Expedition, Geology Surveyors, and/or Caterpillar Creations programs. In particular, the Campbell Creek program is reflective of our program's fun, but increasingly more complex curriculum — students, who are a part of a team of explorers on a scientific expedition, gather clues to help determine the health of the Campbell Creek watershed, which, staff tell them, is a connected web of plants, animals, and people.

Our program description of Spirit Keepers (which is in both our six to seven and eight- and nine-year-old curriculum) is indicative of yet another program-based commitment — to honor our belief that attitudes that nonmainstream cultures have towards nature are as important as our own. This program emphasizes Native arts and culture while teaching respect for the natural world. Native Alaskans share their knowledge and traditional ways of living with program participants. Activities include making fur pouches, beading clan emblems, making dance fans, and learning differing dances. At the conclusion of the four-day course, campers host a Native potlatch. Parents are invited to attend.

We also offer to both of these age groups the Quest I and II programs. Here, kids learn the essentials of camping, which include low-impact camping skills, orienteering, and outdoor safety.

Ten- to Thirteen-Year-Olds
Those in the ten- to thirteen-year-old age range can opt to take the Tidelands to Tundra, Earth and Sky, Venture Bound, Rocks, Ice, Volcanoes, Outdoor Odyssey, and Willow Winds I and Willow Winds II programs. Campers have the opportunity to build upon what they've learned in previous programs, or to explore new areas of naturalist-related interest. For instance, the Venture Bound program is a bridge course that both allows children to draw upon what they learned in the Quest I and II courses and prepares them for the overnight Alaskan Quest Programs (those in the ten and eleven, twelve to fourteen, and fourteen-to sixteen-year-old age groups may participate in this program). Quest trip participants travel to a variety of state-based wilderness settings and for the first time take the steps towards becoming competent outdoors people.

Leave No Trace camping skills, outdoor team building, and outdoor survival skills are stressed in the Alpine Trekker, Canoe Voyager, Fat Tire Bike, Kayak Scout, and Marine Encounter programs.

In addition, we offer an Outdoor Environmental Education (OEE) Leadership training course for those high schoolers who wish to develop their environmental and leadership potential. Participants assist naturalists and receive hands-on experiential training and environmental education.


We encourage our campers to practice good stewardship, both at the Campbell Creek and adjacent Trailside Discovery sites.
We concur with Ben Lawhon, who states in his article "Teaching Campers to be Stewards of the Environment," from the January/February 2005 issue of Camping Magazine that "camp is the ideal setting to teach campers to protect the natural resources, take the responsibility to evaluate others, and practice the skills and ethics necessary to preserve the environment."

We monitor cleanup procedures, both inside and outside the Campbell Creek facility. Campers and staff members have also been included in a related service project, putting in 1,000 hours of work in the past two years.

The kids have taught us that youth like to feel as though they're making an impact. The tasks that we ask them to do are simple and not at all time-consuming. No more than an hour of a camper's given day goes into planting trees, engaging in trail maintenance, or working on the Campbell Creek stream bed erosion project. Yes, even the four-year-olds participate by watering the grounds and picking up litter.

We see "stewardship" and "having a good time" as synonymous terms. During the week, all campers participate in a clean-up effort that's called the Golden Mosquito Rally. The term "golden mosquito" is one that Alaska-raised children readily identify with and enables us to talk informally about its habits and life-cycle.

At the week's end, all groups receive a token of our appreciation — a drawing of a golden mosquito. This ceremonial practice is consistent with educator Alfie Kohn's belief that collaboratively-based, non-competitive activities promote altruistic behavior and increase self-esteem.

Staff Training

Available from the Bookstore
Nature-Oriented Activities: A Leader's Guide
Nature Smart: Awesome Projects to Make with Mother Nature's Help
Creek Stompin' and Getting' Into Nature: Environmental Activities that Foster Youth Development
No Contest: The Case Against Competition
Training Terrific Staff

Another unique aspect of our program is our emphasis on staff training. Our goal isn't to train counselors to lead activities, but rather, to assist them in becoming good teachers. Consequently, we model teaching methods and strategies, and talk at length about the attributes that make for good teachers, one of the most important being the use of positive reinforcement.

Before the onset of each season, Trailside Discovery staff attend a week-long orientation session. This serves a threefold purpose: it acquaints them with our mission statement, provides them with an overview of what we're attempting to accomplish, and familiarizes them with our curriculum, policies, and procedures.

During orientation week (and also during a one-evening voluntary campout), counselors are encouraged to participate in Icebreakers, on-site activities that include role-playing, a scavenger hunt, and singing. These activities encourage staff interaction and complement the experiential nature of our curriculum.

Some of this training, such as behavior management, health and safety, and van rules and usage, is standard. Some of it is less standard — staff members are encouraged to attend an overnight camp session, where they engage in activities that are similar to what they'll encounter when working with kids.

The staff/student ratio of 2/13 is intentionally low — this allows the staff to focus on what I call "teachable moments" or those instances in which a particular discovery dovetails with the program curriculum. For instance, a counselor who is leading the Creek Seeker program can take advantage of a group of six- to seven-year-olds' interest in dam building and explain what processes take place when creek water comes to a standstill.

We, who have been striving for progression-based learning, are now beginning to reap the fruits of our efforts — our campers are now joining our staff. For example, Rebecca Michaelson, twenty-four, attended Trailside Discovery every summer, and went on to become a counselor in high school and college. Now she's one of our three program managers.

Michaelson is quick to acknowledge that her experiences as a Trailside camper have shaped her love of kids, learning, and nature. "I've been a camp counselor for Trailside since I was fifteen, and I'm always impressed by the quality experiences the children gain. Last summer, I taught two children who had never before seen a river. The awestruck look on their faces as they stared into Campbell Creek made the entire summer worthwhile. Rivers, forests, salmon; all of these things seem natural to me, but were amazing and fresh and extraordinary to these two kids," she states.

Parental Communication

Sending a child to an environmentally-based day camp has many advantages. One that is seldom recognized is that counselors have the option of "debriefing" or talking with parents about their child's progress. This keeps the lines of communication between staff person, parent, and child open and ongoing. We've also built other feedback mechanisms into our program. Daily, our counselors ask the children to respond to program-related queries in what we call "Field Guides." We've formed an advisory board, and we recently implemented an online survey. We also encourage parents to provide us with written feedback.

One parent wrote: "I think that overall, it was a fantastic experience! My son and I loved the experience, the natural setting, and the activities. He's already looking forward to next year. Trailside Discovery made his summer a worthwhile experience and not just another dull and unproductive summer. He stayed busy and looked forward to each and every day. He loved his water experiences, the camp set-up activity, and learning about what was safe to eat and what was not. I was so happy that there was a camp like this to go to. He has always loved nature thanks to his grandma but with this camp he got to be knee-deep in it . . ."

And another parent wrote: "She [my daughter] loves your programs. I can't think of any changes to suggest. She [and I] both like the way you incorporated work (trail building, picking up trash, etc., into the daily routine). This year she did Caterpillar Creations, which she loved."

Brandwein, Michael. (1999). Training Terrific Staff: A Handbook of Practical and Creative Tools for Change. Michael Brandwein.
Kohn, Alfie. (1992). No Contest: The Case against Competition (Mariner Books).
Lawhon, Ben. "Teaching Campers to be Stewards of the Environment," January/February 2005, Camping Magazine, p. 36.
Pyle, R.M.(1993). The Thunder Tree. Houghton Mifflin.
Rohnke, Karl.(1993). Cows Tails and Cobras II: A Guide to Games, Initiatives, Ropes Courses and Adventure Curriculum. Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Thomas Burek, who is employed by the Alaska Center for the Environment was hired as the environmental education director of Trailside Discovery in 1996. Burek currently serves as a board member for American Camp Association, Evergreen. For eight years, he was the environmental education director of the Camp Ohiyesa, a branch of the Detroit YMCA. He is also an avid sprint musher.

Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.