The fine art of getting children outdoors and the genuine growth it facilitates has long been known. Aristotle said, “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Shakespeare’s Duke in As You Like It professes, “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” In the Enlightenment, Rousseau claimed in his 1761 book Emile; “Nature wants children to be children before being men . . . . Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling which are proper to it.” And Wordsworth (1888) tells us, in The Tables Turned; “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”


Originally, camp was just camping. It began as a remedial outdoor experience for children in the Progressive Era of the late 1800s to early 1900s. It was a natural experience in a natural setting, with overlapping theory for both location and method. Both summer and school camp programs have similar origins, retain common goals, and often occur on the same sites. Now, school camp, often referred to as Resident Outdoor Environmental Education (ROEE), shares many things with traditional summer camp, but they occur in different seasons and attract different markets. Perhaps they have become fundamentally and markedly different. Or have they?

A century ago, as people moved to cities, visionary leaders, who were often teachers, recognized that people were unintentionally severing a crucial connection to the real world. The jobs were in urban factories, and education was becoming compulsory and more formal. However, wise education leaders did not want schools to become mere factories. While this trend increased literacy, the task of educating the whole person might imperil critical social and maturational development if the entire process was restricted to books, lectures, chalkboards and a classroom.
According to John Dewey, “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” He realized that classroom study limits understanding. “Scientific principles and laws do not lie on the surface of nature. They are hidden, and must be wrested from nature by an active and elaborate technique of inquiry” (1920).
Camp shows that true understanding of the way the world works comes through involvement and activity with an emphasis on the outdoors. These principles have proven themselves over time. The theory and practice of traditional summer camp and resident outdoor environmental education have the same roots. They center on a holistic approach. And so it is that we see outdoor programs as a complement, or a remedy to school.
Education reformist Maria Montessori said, “If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?”
Beginning in 1925, L. B. Sharp championed and grew the Life Fresh Air Fund and its camps for many years (2014). The Fresh Air Camps were (and still are) summer programs. Fresh Air campers were recruited from schools. Myriad summer camps sprouted up all over for a wide variety of purposes. Meanwhile, schools found opportunities to get outside for a few days.


Regardless of where the camper came from, or the time of year, it was all camp: They all held the common value that children needed quality outdoor experiences. Any distinction between activity, class, recreation, playtime, and education was willfully blurred.
A growing middle class that lived in the city or suburbs with newfound wealth and leisure time provided a major market increase for the summer camp industry (augmented with “camperships”). Churches, 4-H groups, YMCAs, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and enterprising families established literally thousands of camps across the country. Most of these operated only during the summer. Summer campers were offered classes and activity periods, which might include nature and campcraft, dance, music, drama, sports, horseback riding, sailing, and more. With common roots, two program trunks emerged in the mid-20th century. In the idealistic and experimental era of the 1960s and ’70s, many teachers with backgrounds as campers or camp counselors, wanted a school camp experience for their classes, and ROEE entered a period of rapid growth. Some rented space at established summer camps; others used state parks and other spaces. Students participated in hiking, boating, archery, basic botany, knot-tying, and lanyard making. Campers helped cook and clean between their learning experiences. There was a nostalgic sort of freedom and creative genius in this time; no guidelines, no standards, just what seemed to succeed.
George and Louise Donaldson, a husband and wife team (who directed Clear Lake Camp, and then Camp Tyler in Texas) published an article titled, “Whatever Happened to School Camping?” in 1982. The article laments a change they claim began in the 1950s, which decreased emphasis on social development, fun, and problem solving — and replaced these things with more academic and content-rich programming. The outdoor education programs they favored were cooperatively chosen and planned by students and teachers, including teambuilding games, crafts, outdoor skills, and problem-solving initiatives. Students helped with much of the cleaning and organizing work. “In sum, they were much more ‘campy’ than ‘schooly.’ But then, in 1957, came Sputnik!”
Indeed, Sputnik changed the whole educational horizon, but the school camp experience remained an important enough part of education that it continued in certain regions and grew in many of them. Superintendents, boards, and principals asked for more formal, written lesson plans and objectives in and out of the classroom to justify field trips and making the journey to camp. A nature hike would no longer be just for serendipitous learning and exercise; now students would memorize a number of plant names, gain physical education by walking a certain distance, and learn several fundamentals of the new science of ecology. Teamwork and sportsmanship justified a game of Capture the Flag. The presence of the music teacher would add a dimension of formality to the sing-along at the campfire.

ROEE Has Its Beginnings

The camp experience had clearly been bifurcated by the postwar prosperity period. By 1965, many, perhaps 200 or more, summer camps opened their cabins, lodges, and dining halls into the fall and spring to accommodate school groups. Some provided meeting space, meals, and beds. Others offered program staff and other services. For many camps, these programs not only increased their revenue stream but also initiated valuable partnerships. Other ROEE programs were established through the efforts of parks, colleges, and philanthropic efforts. So each camp that opened its doors to schools for programs could choose its place on a high- to low-maintenance continuum of services provided.
The 1970s and ’80s were turbulent for camp and education. School districts considered and attempted year-round schools. Baby boomers showed less confidence in anything organized. All this threatened past decades of steady growth in summer camps. In response, the camp industry challenged itself to be more inclusive of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, and many single-sex camps became coed. Every imaginable specialty camp was offered.
A backlash national debate ensued about more fundamental education (The three Rs) versus a more holistic and humanistic approach. Federal Title I money funded low-income schools to try innovative education programs, including ROEE (Eells, 1986). Many summer camps had to close, while ROEE was growing slowly but steadily. Several surviving summer camps now had staffed ROEE departments (with a host of names: outdoor education, environmental education, school science camp, outdoor school and more).
Educators Donald and William Hammerman (1973, 2000) have added much academic literature, substantiating outdoor education as a legitimate field. Many other dedicated ROEE program leaders created a wide variety of excellent lessons and looked more deliberately at their programs as extensions of the classroom. Quick to realize that many great learning experiences were best done outdoors, lessons in forestry, fossils, stargazing, weather, orienteering, and living history were developed. The prime selling point of the program was hands-on education, including lessons that could be tied to formal school. Many ROEE programs still offered classic camp fun — such as singing, marshmallow roasts and skits — as great experiences that could not happen in school.
Character education programs were a response to the “I’m Okay, You’re Okay” self-esteem, value-neutral programs of the 1970s, which seemed to miss a sense of moral direction. Character education and values made a huge impact in schools, camps, and nonprofit agencies such as the YMCA, and Boy and Girl Scouts. Posters, flags, marketing slogans, and some actual program modifications proliferated throughout camps and schools alike. And character value programs remain important in schools and many youth programs.
Another trend was to make programs more deliberate in what they provided, using data from research such as the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets® (2014). Their research showed that certain assets in the lives of children (such as positive peer influences, positive adult role models, and creative activities) were associated with healthy, successful adults.
These studies and movements provoked every camping program to be more thorough, specific, diligent, and deliberate. The American Camp Association® (ACA) standards added that camps formalize how they pursue the goals in their mission. Camp marketing efforts emphasized skill building and character development. In 1981, Clifford Knapp published Humanizing Environmental Education. Two books — Acclimatization, by Steve Van Matre (1972), and Joseph Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children (1998) — revitalized summer and school camping.
By the 1990s, statewide education standards were mandated in many school districts, becoming ubiquitous when the No Child Left Behind Act passed in 2001. Most ROEE programmers realized that their continued success rested in somehow incorporating these values and standards in their programs. The 2000s decade gave us new insights in discipline methods such as Love and Logic©, in which many schools and ROEE centers received training. Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder placed a near medical alarm stamp on the topic, re-energizing an entire movement. By making reference to startling reports such as a 2002 British study that eight-year-olds could identify Pokémon characters far more easily than they could name “otter, beetle, and oak tree,” he rekindled the case for the outdoor experience.
The Great Recession (2006-2013) put tremendous pressure on both summer camps and ROEE programs as family and school district budgets shrunk significantly. These pared-down budgets for schools have resulted in tighter field trip policies. Busses cost more, teacher stipends have been cut, and new rules affect overnight trips. Higher unemployment rates made it harder for families to shell out the $100 or more for their students to attend the class ROEE program. Now ROEE programs realize they need to further justify their existence (Parry, 2013).

Current Trends in Education

To stay relevant, ROEE centers should be aware of current trends in education in the U.S.

21st-century learning: Teachers are now working with students whose entire lives have been immersed in the 21st century media culture. Today’s students are digital learners who take the potential of the Internet for granted (one good reference: Rather than compete with globalism and the Internet, 21st-century learning embraces these trends. Content becomes less important; process and judgment become more critical.

Brain research: An explosion in information from neuroscience, genetics, psychology, and education theory has revealed a great deal about how learning takes place, and greater understanding of various barriers to learning. Investigations into the neural mechanisms of reading, numerical cognition, and attention yield revelations about difficulties including dyslexia, dyscalculia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as they relate to education.

Differentiated instruction and questioning techniques: As the role of teachers moves from autocratic and lecture-based to an activity and student-centered approach, it becomes critical for teachers to understand a variety of ways to reach children, engage them, and elicit deeper-level thinking. Teachers seek to nurture various strengths and skills as they interact with each student. Approaches include reference to books such as Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Howard Gardner, 1983), The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners (Ann Tomlinson, 2014), Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners (Ron Ritchhart and Mark Church, 2011), and Effective Questioning Strategies in the Classroom: A Step-by-Step Approach to Engaged Thinking and Learning, K-8 (Esther Fusco, 2012).

The Five E Model for lessons: An instructional model based on the constructivist approach to learning, which says that learners build or construct new ideas on top of their old ideas. The 5 Es can be used with students of all ages, including adults. Each of the 5 Es describes a phase of learning: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. The 5 Es allows students and teachers to experience common activities, to use and build on prior knowledge and experience, to construct meaning, and to continually assess their understanding of a concept. Refer to or for good introductions to this concept.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education: A growing national interest as the US seeks to remain competitive. While this may seem more pertinent to secondary and postsecondary education, elementary students can be inspired and introduced to these concepts. They can discover how design, math, and information are exciting and valuable components of learning.

Project-based learning: Makes use of interdisciplinary, experience-based projects in which “students pursue solutions to nontrivial problems by asking and refining questions, debating ideas, making predictions, designing plans and/or experiments, collecting and analyzing data, drawing conclusions, communicating their ideas and findings to others, asking new questions, and creating artifacts” (Blumenfeld, 1991).

ROEE Finds Solutions

While most ROEE centers have seen decreased revenue, they have hardly given up. They have launched many creative solutions, including shortened programs that cost less (fewer days or day-only), lowering program fees, and raising money for scholarships. Many ROEE centers see their program staff as experts in alternative and experiential education, conducting certain ROEE activities at schools and offering training for lay people, teachers, and young professionals.
As the economy recovers, ROEE organizations continue to look for ways to work and partner with schools. ROEE still exists as a remedy. At its core, it is a needed experiential and environmental supplement to education. Thus, shortening the program, changing the venue, and finding financial assistance allows centers to stay true to their missions. The genius of ROEE lies in its partnership with formal education for the sake of children. Thus, ROEE keeps its identity while adapting to changes in education and the economy.

ROEE Programs Thrive

In recent years, informal discussion with teachers, focus groups, and surveys all reveal a potpourri of reasons why schools attend ROEE programs. The following list of objectives summarizes why most schools attend ROEE:
  • Reinforce and broaden understanding of certain education standards that are best taught in an informal and/or outdoor setting, such as biomes, ecological communities, predator-prey relations, weathering and erosion, and weather observation
  • Build and develop social and teamwork skills through games and ropes courses
  • Provide new outdoor skills and experiences not available in school, such as archery, canoeing, fire building, stargazing, compass, living history, or interaction with certain experts
  • Exposure to a natural setting and increased appreciation for nature, stewardship, and conservation
  • Create a fun, shared, memorable experience for the class
With some subtle changes in verbiage, ROEE planners from decades earlier would probably have offered the same list. Two long-ago quotes from Maria Montessori are appropriate here: “There must be provision for the child to have contact with nature; to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature” (1936), and, “It is also necessary for his psychical development to place the soul of the child in contact with creation, in order that he may lay up for himself treasure from the directly educating forces of living nature” (1912).
The list might also include some experiences with new technology, such as GPS, posting data on the website, digital cameras, or use of social media. On the other hand, a recent article in Newsweek “found that tweens who spent five days at an outdoor camp, unplugged and media-free, were better able to understand emotions than their peers, who stayed home and continued their usual media diet” (Jones, 2014). Such is the continual debate about appropriate use of technology, and the value of any camp experience.
Most schools articulate that they do not wish to lose the fun and memories that the camp experience can provide (a sing-along around the campfire is rarely sacrificed in the schedule for something like a wildlife lecture), recognizing that there are limits to the academics. The essential learning derived from experience remains a key component to both summer camp and ROEE.
For many kids, school camp or ROEE is the only camp experience they will have. ROEE is almost always an adventure for the entire class, while summer camp is most often a chosen activity. The number of students taking part in ROEE is nothing to dismiss; a typical year-round camp operation might see several hundred children in a summer, and several thousand during the school year.
Successful ROEE centers have learned that comprehensive quality is what keeps them operating. They certainly share that wisdom with summer camp and any business. Many centers share long traditions with their client schools going back 30 years or more. The relationship has been nurtured by the constant attention to high-quality lessons by trained and mature staff, a well-maintained facility, and a balance of academics and fun. The school must feel comfortable in expressing its needs and confident those needs will be met. Strong, responsive customer relations build the centers’ reputation, which is fundamental to growth and new customers. ROEE centers have heartily joined efforts associated with children and nature (a.k.a., No Child Left Inside).
ROEE centers are increasingly publicizing their programs simply as “school programs.” If ROEE is to be truly a supplement to education as a whole, a relevant extension of the classroom, then its purveyors must speak the same language. While ROEE must recognize, respond, and adapt to these trends, it can and must retain the basic, timeless characteristics that make it truly valuable.
Many camps have grown to employ separate summer camp and ROEE personnel. Equipment, storage rooms, and trails are designated for different purposes, and two different training manuals sit on shelves. The programs may compete for limited resources and sometimes show different values, but as summer camp and ROEE evolve, we should remember their roots. Both programs are all about child development. They exist to build shared memories of great experiences outdoors. And in that setting we all learn a great deal.
Both summer and school-year programs can boast a long list of the good they do for children:
  • Choices
  • The influence of good role models
  • Direct contact with nature
  • Developmentally appropriate activities
  • Genuine fun and silliness
  • A close-knit community
  • New activity opportunities
  • A chance to be a leader
  • New and deeper friendships
  • Learning by doing
  • Making memories
Further proof of American Poet Walt Whitman’s observation in Leaves of Grass: “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.”
Blumenfeld, P. et. al., (1991). Motivating project-based learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning, Educational Psychologist, Volume 26, Issue 3-4.
Cornell, J. (1998). Sharing nature with children, 20th anniversary edition. DAWN Publications, Nevada City, Calif.
Dewey, J. (1920). Reconstruction in philosophy.
Donaldson, G. & Donaldson, L. (1982). Whatever happened to school camping? Camping Magazine.
Eells, E. (1986). History of organized camping: The first 100 years. American Camp Association.
The Fresh Air Fund. (2014). Our history & mission. Retrieved from
Hammerman, D. & Hammerman W. (1973). Outdoor education: A book of readings.
Hammerman, D. & Hammerman W. (2000). Teaching in the outdoors. Prentice Hall.
Jones, A. (2014, August 21). Screen time makes tweens clueless on reading social cues. Newsweek. Retrieved from…
Knapp, C. (1981). Humanizing environmental education: A guide for leading nature and human activities. American Camping Association.
Louv, R. (2006). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder, pp. 33.
Montessori, M. (1936). The secret of childhood.
Montessori, M. (1912). The montessori method, Chapter X.
Parry, J. (2013). Guide to resident outdoor environmental education.
Search Institute. (2014). Developmental assets. Retrieved from
Van Matre, S. (1972, December). Acclimatization. American Camping Association.
Jim Parry has worked in the ROEE field since 1982. He lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, teaches in a Montessori middle school, and is the author of the book Resident Outdoor Environmental Education. Contact him at
Photos courtesy of the American Camp Association Historical Archives