Outdoor Education at Camp: Enriching Lives through Positive Interactions with Nature

Thomas Bawden
July 2019
camper

In an increasingly connected world, today’s children experience an ever-decreasing connection to the natural world. As a result of hours of screen time, lengthening school days, and increasing participation in organized out-of-school activities, children are spending less time outside than ever before. Because of this lack of outdoor time, their connection to and understanding of their natural surroundings is startlingly absent.

With proven positive impacts of spending time outdoors, it is undeniable that increasing children’s engagement with their natural world should be a priority. Camps are uniquely poised to provide children with a high-quality, engaging experience outdoors that will equip them with the skills, mindset, and passion to continue their natural exploration when they leave camp property. With limited time and resources, it is imperative that camp staff maximize the time they have to share their passion for nature with their campers.

An outdoor education experience must do more than simply provide a camper with information about their surroundings. Ideally, an experience will leave a camper with the following outcomes:

  • A kindled passion for exploring nature
  • Skills, tools, and knowledge necessary for successful immersion in nature
  • An understanding of basic environmental stewardship principles
  • Elements of character development

To accomplish these outcomes, an effective outdoor learning experience should be outcomes-based. Not every piece of the campers’ experience will meet all four outcomes, but the aggregate of their experience should meet all the outcomes for it to be effective in reconnecting campers with nature and outdoor play.

This guide to effective outdoor education explores each of these four outcomes and provides methods to achieving them. Because no guide is comprehensive, this represents a starting point from which a camp program focused on nature can be devised or a training program implemented.

Kindling Passion for Exploring Nature

Effective outdoor educators love nature and utilize every opportunity to share that passion with their campers. Leading by example is the easiest method for reaching campers who are new to the art of nature exploration.

To excite their campers, counselors should not only know the content they are responsible for conveying, but must be able to clearly articulate and demonstrate their appreciation and passion for nature. For camp staff who don’t come preloaded with experience and passion for nature, it is paramount that before teaching campers they come to understand and appreciate it themselves.

Truly effective outdoor teachers at camp know that they can’t teach content alone. It requires camper participation for the material to make its full impact. To achieve this, camp staff must include campers in every aspect of the lesson. For an outdoor education participant to leave their camp experience with a kindled passion for nature, they must take some ownership of their nature experience. To make this happen, camp staff must plan opportunities and lessons that encourage camper involvement.

This will vary from camp to camp and activity to activity, but one possible method is to demonstrate a skill and then allow the campers to try it themselves, with adult supervision, of course. For example, fire safety is an important part of outdoor education. Trained camp staff can demonstrate building a campfire — including appropriate safety measures, types of wood to use, structure styles, and responsibilities — and then give the campers the opportunity to build a fire themselves, with adult supervision but minimal intervention.

Another method is to begin an experience with the campers trying themselves, and then adding instruction where needed. In the education community, this is called scaffolding. By keeping the desired outcome in mind, the educator can begin with something he or she knows the campers can do or can figure out by themselves (this comes by knowing the campers and their abilities). Allowing them to begin an activity themselves, then inserting instruction and adding challenges, allows the campers to feel empowered as they progress through the lesson. For an activity that utilizes scaffolding, consider a pond study. Allow the campers to explore the pond and find the creatures that inhabit the ecosystem. As they find the critters, the camp staff in charge can begin to teach the students some of the characteristics of those animals and the ecosystem. As the activity progresses, the campers will begin (with the counselor’s guidance) to draw connections and form generalizations about the ecosystem and the animals it contains.

The final method for kindling a passion for nature in campers is building relationships. One of the greatest tools that outdoor educators have is their personality. By sharing their experiences and learning about the experiences of their campers, a counselor begins to build a relationship with their charges. As the most effective educators know, learning is all about connections. Children must learn about the connection between living things. They must learn about the connection between their actions and the resulting effects on the environment.

Skills, Tools, and Knowledge Necessary for Successful Immersion in Nature

The primary objective of an outdoor education experience at camp is education. Without a firm grasp of the content for which camp staff is responsible, no amount of lesson planning, connection building, or passion kindling can foster learning. Camp directors, counselors, and mentors share the responsibility for this content knowledge. A director must create strong content from which camp staff may teach, and provide adequate training and development so that the counselors have an exceptional knowledge of the camp’s grounds, ecology, and equipment.

Once an outdoor education counselor has been provided with baseline knowledge of the camp and the content of the program, they undertake the responsibility of building a repertoire of content knowledge. It is important for the counselors to be able to create connections when campers discover them. They must go beyond a working knowledge of the program. To accomplish this, outdoor mentors should spend time getting to know the material they are teaching beyond the scope of what they expect their campers to learn. For example, when I learned how to play guitar, I learned from a classically trained, former professional jazz guitarist. When I learned the pentatonic scale, I didn’t learn it as just a five-note scale, I learned it in the context of beautiful solos from songs I loved. Relating that to outdoor education, by expanding their knowledge beyond the scope of the class, a counselor can give campers context and something to strive for when they leave camp and begin exploring nature by themselves.

Furthermore, to ensure that participants leave an outdoor education experience with the necessary knowledge base to begin appreciating nature by themselves, it is important for camp staff to share resources with their campers. They should stay current on relevant information pertaining to what they’re teaching and help their campers find sources of information so they may continue their quest to learn about their surroundings after they leave camp.

Finally, to ensure that what the campers are learning sticks, an outdoor education counselor should ensure that they are providing concrete examples of the materials they are covering in their program. For example, in an activity about campsite selection, it would be a disservice to the campers if their counselor didn’t show them soil erosion from a poorly selected campsite. By giving them concrete examples, they can build context to the content.

An Understanding of Basic Environmental Stewardship Principles

In his Citizenship Papers, Wendell Berry introduced the idea of living along the river to explain cause and effect relationships between humans and nature. He explains that the actions of those upstream affect those downstream, and as the river flows, the effects are compounded (Berry, 2004). Teaching campers that actions can have environmental consequences is a cornerstone of environmental education. Camp staff must have the understanding that while certain practices may be second nature, and some common sense, it is increasingly common that campers attending day and residential camps don’t have foundational knowledge of environmental stewardship.

For camp staff to begin teaching environmental stewardship, they must make the “unwritten rules” written. A counselor should be specific in their expectations. Give the campers the necessary practices to be ecologically sensitive before beginning an activity. While teaching through example is important, it is equally important for outdoor mentors to explain not only what they are doing to be a steward, but also why. This way, campers learn what it means to be stewards, how to behave as stewards, and how to develop the foundation to continue their environmental responsibility when they leave camp and return to their homes and during any future adventures in nature.

Elements of Character Development

In Rewilding our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, environmentalist Marc Bekoff explains the importance of teaching kids character through nature:

It is vital that we teach children well — that we infuse their education with kindness and compassion and a deep immersion in nature, so that they do not grow up “unwild” and so their decisions are founded on deeply rooted, reflexive caring ethic (Bekoff, 2014).

Nature can be a crucible for meaningful discussions of character and ethics. Camp settings provide an excellent platform for character values. By putting kids outside of their elements, it challenges them to overcome fears, support their peers, and accept support when they need it themselves. It welcomes and encourages free-flowing discussion and high-level thinking. To foster these learning experiences, camp educators must intentionally intertwine character education with their program content.

Just as an effective instructor ties stewardship principals to ethical behaviors, to incorporate character development in outdoor education at camp, staff must relate behaviors to values. By focusing on values rather than actions, counselors can move the lesson from doing to being. The YMCA makes this easy for its camp staff by setting four Core Values, however any camp can do this by identifying a set of values that it wishes to instill in its campers. This gives a program and its staff a foundation from which they can base their lessons. For example, by rooting discussions of ecological stewardship in responsibility and caring, it broadens the possible applications of campers’ behavior. By focusing on honesty and respect in a teambuilding activity, it extends the practice of support and positive communication beyond particular actions to values. Just as we “write the unwritten rules” in stewardship, it can be beneficial to do the same with character education.

Immense Potential

Camp counselors and other outdoor educators must realize the immense potential they have to positively affect a children’s lives by giving them the tools and passion they need to begin spending time outdoors. By creating a comprehensive outdoor education program and continuing to hone their own skills, effective outdoor educators can begin to help children disconnect from their technologically encapsulated lives and connect with nature by kindling a passion for the outdoors, giving them the tools they need to explore, providing an understanding of basic environmental stewardship principals, and incorporating character development in their teaching.

Photo courtesy of Boys & Girls Club Camp Whitcomb/Mason, Hartland, Wisconsin.

References

Bekoff, M. (2014). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence. Novato, CA: New World Library.

Berry, W. (2004). Citizenship papers: Essays. New York, NY: Counterpoint.

Thomas Bawden is the senior program director of outdoor education at YMCA Camp Copneconic in Fenton, Michigan. He has been learning from camp experiences since 2001 when he first attended camp as a camper. He also held jobs as a counselor and camp director, and spent a year as a high school math teacher before becoming a full-time camp professional in 2015.