Inspiration from Nature: Creative Outdoor Writing Activities

by Anthony R. Cardno

Oscar Wilde once said, "Nature is a foolish place to look for inspiration in, but a charming one in which to forget one ever had any." Despite this lazy view of the outdoors, many summer camps continue to offer creative writing programs. In fact, many camps are expanding on the camp-news type of programming and branching into nature poetry, short stories, and scriptwriting. No matter what the end product, the goal is the same: written pieces full of descriptive language and action verbs inspired by the outdoors.

When campers notice the world around them, they can identify with nature, build an emotional connection with the environment, and find a written expression of that connection. They may enhance their descriptive skills, broaden their communications skills, and learn something about themselves in the process.

Nature Symbols

We’ve all heard someone described as "as cunning as a fox" or "as wise as an owl." These expressions are derived from nature. As you take a nature walk with campers to a quiet place away from the center of camp, ask them to think about their own abilities, personalities, and feelings, and write down some notes about themselves.

When you get to the quiet place, ask campers to choose an animal or a plant that they feel they have a connection to — an animal or a plant that would symbolize themselves. Share a few cliched examples, metaphors, and similes, like the ones above, with campers and ask them to write a sentence or two explaining why they chose that animal or plant.

You’ll be surprised at the variety of responses. For example, "My symbol is the rhododendron because you can tell how cold it is by the way its leaves curl up"; "That chipmunk never stands still, just like me"; and "I’m like this shrub; I’m small, but I can defend myself with little prickers."

Animal lore
Campers can do other activities that help them learn more about animals. Ask campers to pick an animal and brainstorm individually about the animal’s traits, habitat, and habits. Then ask campers to write a short story from their chosen animal’s point of view without mentioning the animal by name. When all stories have been written, have the authors read their stories aloud and have campers try to identify the animals by their characteristics.

To expand the way campers view animals and their knowledge of poetry forms, assign a free-form poem with the central simile being "I am like (fill in the name of any animal)." Assign different poem styles, for example, haiku, sonnet, or limerick, on different days. Have campers use the same animal from the first poem in all poems to show how the style of a poem sometimes affects how campers may write about their animal subjects.

Seeing Through Another's Eyes

By working in teams, campers can enhance their descriptive abilities and practice communication skills. Begin by equipping each camper with paper and a writing utensil. Then divide campers into groups of two and let them spread out across a wooded area. When the pair finds a comfortable spot, they sit back to back on the ground. One camper picks something only he can see and describes it to the other camper in as much detail as possible. The other camper writes down the description.

A sample description may be: "It’s gray with white spangles in it. The right side looks rounded and smooth, but the left is broken up, all sharp, like a V. Maybe someone hit it and broke a piece off. It’s been here a long time, though, because a big tree root runs right over it in the middle, covering a little of the V and some of the smooth part. There’s some green shaggy stuff on the smooth side, like a toupee. A lot of it must be underground, buried by the dirt and the tree. With the smooth side and broken side together, it almost looks like an animal skull."

Encourage campers to use as many details as possible and to pick something natural, not manmade (i.e., no buildings, although rock walls or wooden fences might be acceptable, especially if they’re overgrown and have not been maintained). Tell campers to ask themselves questions about the object to spark a detailed description. For example: How big is it? What shape and color is it? What is it surrounded by? Is it buried, on the ground, or above ground? Does it fit with the area or look recently moved? Does it remind them of anything else?

When the first camper is finished, the pair reverses roles. When both members of the pair have taken a turn, each should try to find the other’s object. Then gather campers together and have them share their descriptions.

Writing challenges
This description can be a springboard for other activities. For example, use it as an outline for a short story. As campers write their stories, suggest they answer these questions: How could this natural item play a major or secondary role in a story? How would it set the tone or mood if it was in the first paragraph? What if two or three people used the same vivid description in different contexts?

Many poets try to use as few words as possible to fully describe something. Challenge campers to pare down their descriptions to include only the most vivid or active words. Using these words, have them write a poem about the object.

Broaden Your Scope

Use as much of your camp facility as possible. Chances are that your campers spend enough time at the dining hall, the cabins, and the main program lodge. Travel to an unused piece of lakeshore or a seldom-traveled patch of forest. Sail on a pontoon boat to the lake’s center or hike to a high rocky overlook. Various locations and different perspectives will help campers see that there is more than one way to write about anything.

Anthony R. Cardno is senior environmental education program specialist for Fairview Lake YMCA Camps and Conference Center in Newton, New Jersey. He leads canoe and hiking trips for the camp’s Environmental Trips for Challenge (ETC) program

Originally published in the 1998 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.