by Jim Parry
Popular media and literature remind us of childhood obesity and how
many hours children spend in front of one screen or another (not counting
a cabin window screen). Then there is the constant disparity about global
warming and habitat destruction. For many children, a soccer field is
the closest they will get to an outdoor experience on any given day.
One is led to believe that the man-made world is all there is.
I found myself agreeing with and finding a sort of macabre inspiration
as I read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. Kids are not outside
enough, and what they see of the outdoors is manicured and sterilized.
I link this not only to problems we see in children, but also as a dangerous
disconnection with environmental awareness. This is the banner I carry.
David Sobel shares an anecdote in Beyond Ecophobia:
Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education where a student’s school project poster said, “Save
the Elephants; Don’t Buy Ivory Soap.” Perhaps our view of
the environment is laced with misinformation. Perhaps we are just afraid
of snakes and mosquitoes.
It may be surprising, but the forests of North America are the largest,
most intact forests in the temperate world. Prairies, mountains, and
shorelines are abundant, if we just get out there. While Americans are
certainly excellent consumers, they have a knack for preservation, too.
Fresh air, wildflowers, starry nights, and wooded trails can still be
our companions. Despite the sad things we hear about how we treat our
environment, we really do live in a lovely natural world. These wild
places are not limited to parks.
Youth camps are set on some of the most scenic, breathtaking land in
our country—some of the absolutely best secrets there are. Waterfalls,
rock outcrops, majestic trees, wetlands, lakes, streams—these are
the spectacular views children get to enjoy in these camp havens. Even
smaller and more urban camps are nobly committed to preserving some aspect
of the natural setting—a grove of trees, a field, a garden.
Camp, it may be said, is remedial education in the outdoors.
As camp professionals, we know this. Ours might be the most optimistic
of all professions. We need no convincing that we are giving kids a world
of good. Despite all the hype of extreme activities, the sleep we may
lose about safety, and the time we spend at a desk, we know where the
priorities are—people and nature. When old, gray campers remember
their stay, it is the friends they made and the trails they walked that
stand out. When all is said and done, a walk in the woods is one of the
most therapeutic things anyone can do. In fact, small moments in our
relationship with nature can have the greatest impact.
We receive training and advice to be deliberate with our goals for camp.
Typically, these goals include such things as teaching children good
values, increasing their self-esteem, making friends and memories, and
of course, safety. All are good goals and worthwhile. Does the relationship
children have with nature impact their character, their values? Are we
including the outdoor environment in our life-changing goals list?
How is a camp different than a classroom or child care center—both
of which often have the same kinds of mission statements as we do? We
have trees, streams, and meadows!
So let us be deliberate in values education for children. Let’s
help kids have healthy relationships. And let us be deliberate in helping
campers to love the natural world. There is no intellectual hurdle here
to see that people and nature can and should get along.
Most of this is not hard at all. It might mean reviewing your mission
statement or changing a word or two in a brochure. It might mean a slightly
new twist in your staff training—or even hiring process. The objective
for this new column is to introduce and suggest more avenues for deliberate
behavior—to share ideas, activities, and stories that can help
create an intentional nature program for children and youth—to
realize the role nature can have in changing the lives of children.
Never forget that a natural moment is a profound one—the feel
of wind on your face, a surprise sighting of a deer, stopping to bend
over and look at an ant parade, or a counselor pointing at a shooting
star are never forgotten.
Jim Parry is the outdoor education director at Collin County YMCA Adventure
Camp in Anna, Texas.
Originally published in the 2007 January/February
issue of Camping Magazine.