Nature is everywhere at camp, and we sometimes walk right past it. Whether your camp is in a city or the country, there is nature. It might be roly-polys in the leaves, mosquitoes buzzing past, or owls hooting late at night. Yet, we too often only think about it if we are working as part of a camp nature program. Simple ideas can allow you to take advantage of teachable moments in nature without being an expert in biology. Likely, the campers will catch on to your excitement and be curious about what might be next.
Camp gets us out of our normal routine so we are naturally more curious about the people and things around us. Many of our camps offer a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with nature because we are in natural settings.
Nature is important and good, but there are ways to pique a camper’s curiosity beyond just nature as a backdrop at camp. Research shows the number of direct experiences that children have with nature increases their interest and concern for the environment (James, Bixler, & Vadala, 2010).
Campers can interact with nature more often if we find small ways to do that throughout the day. Here are some simple steps that provide pleasures all around camp. Our goal is to get you started (you can use a search engine to learn specific details for your area) and give you more ideas than one person could implement (so you can share with friends).
Step One: Notice What Nature Is Around You
There is wonder in dew drops on a spider web, a shadow cast by the moon, and in the smell of a skunk’s spray (well maybe not wonder, but it certainly gets our attention). Pay attention to the nature that is around you and point it out to campers (kind of like playing “I spy”). Do you see a line of ants going across the sidewalk? Slow down to notice where they start and what food has attracted them. It might be a leftover cookie, a dead insect, or an animal.
After taking time to notice nature, learn a little bit about the plants, insects, and animals that live in your camp area. The more familiar you are with surrounding nature, the more comfortable you will be — and that translates to positive nature experience for campers. When you have an unexpected encounter with nature, think about how you react. Your reaction as a staff member makes a difference in how campers react (if you scream, they scream; if you lean in to look, so do they). If a bee comes over while you are enjoying a picnic, consider sharing a tiny bite of your sandwich and watch the bee rather than freaking out.
Take time to learn a bit about the night sky. When you are outside at night you can help the campers really see the stars. Tell stories about constellations or point out planets. Search astronomy calendars on the Internet to know when meteor showers will occur and which direction in the sky to look. When you notice and connect your campers to the experience, it offers a great way to start a conversation about how what they just saw connects to their world. If they see the ants following along in a line or carrying something huge compared to their own body weight, they may recognize life lessons about a group or doing something difficult.
Step Two: Do Simple Things to Attract Wildlife
Create a roosting spot for bugs.
Create a roosting spot for bugs so you can reliably know where to go look for them. Wherever there is a light burning at night, you can count on bugs of all sorts to be attracted to it. Simply put a board that has been painted white or string an old white sheet on a branch or clothesline and race with the campers to check in the morning which insects have been attracted.
For a night adventure, hang the sheet and shine a light on it while campers are watching to see what flies into the light. An LED black light or halogen light works best, but all lights will attract something interesting. Campers can choose their favorite and have a contest to decide which bug is biggest, prettiest, ugliest, etc. Borrow a book from the nature center or library on insects and have the campers try to identify and learn about specific bugs.
Set up tree frog and toad houses.
Set up tree frog and toad houses near the bug settling spot. They will quickly learn there is a regular supply of food and will come looking for a snack. To attract tree frogs, get pieces of PVC pipe (three to four feet long and two to three inches in diameter is recommended) and stick them in the ground at a slight angle and buried enough to be stable. You can experiment with what kinds of wooded areas will net more as the frogs seek refuge in them. You can have a contest for which one attracts the most tree frogs, moving them around to find the best spot.
To attract toads, seek a cool, moist spot and use a variety of materials to create a small, cave-like space for them to seek shelter. They can be elaborate clay or driftwood pieces made in arts and crafts (to take home too) or just a clay pot set in the ground sideways.
Start a small garden.
Start a small garden with one plant or large enough to feed a group (of people or butterfly larva).
Start an herb garden from seeds or cuttings from the kitchen or existing plants (on a window sill, raised bed, or patch of earth around camp). Once the plants are going, pick some herbs on the way to lunch.
Start a butterfly garden specific for your region by learning what types of butterflies live in your area and planting the plants that the caterpillars love to eat. Help your camp move away from common annuals that look nice to people but not to hungry caterpillars, and watch the area come alive with butterflies and hummingbirds.
Create a worm bed.
Create a worm bed — whether for fishing, fertilizing the flower beds, or composting the kitchen waste, red wigglers are a great choice. It can be a simple project using a damp piece of plywood put on the ground or as elaborate as employing a Plexiglas tank so the action can be watched on all sides. Depending on the scale of the project, it could be a camp-wide endeavor to use up food scraps or just a reliable place to look for worms for fishing.
Attract helpful pollinators.
Attract helpful pollinators with a mason bee board. These tiny, native bees seek refuge in holes that have been drilled into scrap lumber and mounted around camp. The bees come back and forth to cover eggs that have been laid in the holes with mud. They pollinate the flowers and fruits. Many people are afraid of these little nonaggressive bees at first (male mason bees have no stingers, and females will only sting if trapped or squeezed), but the more we know and the more often we are around them, the more comfortable we become.
Step Three: Try Easy, Fun Activities
Find what lives in those small circles in the sand.
Find what lives in those small circles in the sand by bringing out a black light. On the coast it could be tiny crabs, but in most other areas, it will be the ant lion who has set a trap for its prey.
Solve the mystery of the night sounds.
Rather than fear from the night sounds, there can be comfort in understanding what all the sounds are. Campers will likely fall asleep faster if they are straining to hear and identify various sounds instead of whispering with their friends. Learning a few iconic night sounds such as the barred owl, screech owl, great horned owl, and katydids is easy with Internet resources.
Spot a planet versus a star on a clear night.
Learn when there will be a new moon or a full moon. Find out what time the moon will rise and the sun will set. Learn the difference between what stars, planets, airplanes, and satellites look like in the night and day skies. Learn some simple “star hops” (such as how to find the Big Dipper, and when it leaks, the water pours down on Leo the lion) to help the sky come to life for your campers.\
Detect nighttime spider eyes.
Detect nighttime spider eyes while walking back to your cabin using a flashlight. In a wooded area or on the edge of the trail, have campers put their flashlights at the side of their head with the light facing toward the ground and very slowly sweep the ground five to 15 feet away). When they see pin-size, greenish reflections they should be able to locate a spider or realize there are multitudes of spiders in the woods.
Catch all kinds of insects.
Catch all kinds of insects with a net. Give campers a net — a real insect net, not a toy net — and set them loose. Screaming, running, and laughing, your campers will run all over the place trying to snag multiple bugs. A weedy field is a wonderful habitat for insects. A mowed lawn also works unless it has been recently treated with pesticides. Learn how to properly use insect nets so you can demonstrate and encourage the kids to use these techniques. Have clear jars to put the insects into for observation. (Make sure your jars have breathable lids such as circular pieces of mesh or tulle fabric with rubber bands holding them in place around the rims.) Real insect nets hold up very well and the extra dollars are worth it. There are two types of nets: aerial nets and sweep nets. Everyone has seen aerial nets in use. Sweep nets are more rugged. They are swept and beat across vegetation to knock insects off plants into the net. Insects are cold blooded so this is a sunny day activity.
Play I-spy with spider webs.
You can play I-spy with spider webs by misting them to make them easier to spot. Obtain the necessary number of mist spray bottles so you have one for each camper. In mid to late summer when spider webs become common, have kids spray anything that looks like a spider web. Almost magically, interesting patterns will appear. Do an Internet search for photos/diagrams of the kinds of spider webs you might find in your area, such as from the bowl and doily spider.
Step Four: Engage the Curiosity and Model Calm
Once campers are curious, look for books in the camp library to allow campers to learn more. Give them index cards with searchable words so campers can build on their knowledge at home. Ask questions for which you yourself have no answers. Knowing all the answers may feel comfortable, but there is fun in discovering an answer with a camper. Wonder and observe. By observing what is around us, we are treated to small instances of joy and wonder that others might walk right past. Be the one who stops and notices.
In case someone has objections to your everyday nature quest, here are some tips for rebuttal. There are literally gazillions of insects (it is estimated that 80 billion are killed annually by bug zappers in the USA alone) and few are endangered, so there is not an ethical issue in turning campers loose with insect nets to run around and see what they catch. It is important to learn the dangerous neighbors in your habitat and teach the appropriate caution of not touching creatures until you know what is venomous. If you see a snake, stay calm and watch from a distance. It can only strike one-third of its length (so if you see a three-foot rattle snake and you are six feet away, you are likely safe). As you learn more, you will be better able to model calm, curious behavior.
Step Five: Have Fun!
Any activity that provides the opportunity for exploration, getting dirty or wet, and being observant is fun and developmentally worthwhile.
Make Camp Unique
Camp is at its best when we are doing things campers can’t do at home, yet with lessons and skills they can easily transfer home. Be the counselor who wakes everyone up to go see shooting stars. Be the one who notices little circles in the sand and then shows campers the ant lion.
Star Gazing apps: StarView, Star Walk, and Star Chart
Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab
Tree Frog Houses: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw308
Toad Houses: gardeningknowhow.com/special/children/garden-toad-house.htm
Worm beds: http://compost.css.cornell.edu/worms/steps.html
Mason bee house: nwf.org/How-to-Help/Garden-for-Wildlife/Gardening-Tips/Build-a-Bee-House.aspx
Star Hopping: http://greenteacher.com/star-hopping
Sources for insect nets and other cool stuff: bioquip.com
Photo courtesy of Camp Timber Ridge, Mableton, Georgia
James, J.J., Bixler, R.D., & Vadala, C. (2010). Environmental socialization: A developmental model for natural history oriented environmental professionals. Children, Youth, Environments, 20 (1), 231–256.
Gwynn M. Powell, PhD, loves to look at the stars, swim in the lake, and watch the hummingbirds flit. Currently, she is on the faculty in Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management at Clemson University; has two decades of camp experience in the USA, Russia, South Africa, and Turkey; and serves on the board of directors for the International Camping Fellowship.
J. Joy James, PhD, has been involved in teaching, resident camps, and environmental education for over 20 years. Currently, she teaches recreation management as a faculty member at Appalachian State University.
Rob Bixler, PhD, spent two summers as a camper and seven summers as a camp counselor before majoring in biology and going on to work as a park naturalist and environmental educator. He currently teaches park programming classes at Clemson University as a faculty member in the Department of Park, Recreation, and Tourism Management.