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TIME FOR A CAMP REVIVAL: The Return of Nature Camps and the Support for Those That Never Went Away

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal. He speaks frequently around the country and internationally.

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Dear friends, I hope you will join me at the 2019 Children & Nature Network International Conference in Oakland, California, May 16-18, 2019. The conference is anticipated to be the largest gathering of leaders, advocates and activists from the children and nature movement. Take a look at the schedule and see why we think you’ll be inspired by three days of connecting with leaders in the movement, expertly-curated workshops, field trips, nearly 100 sessions and events designed to support the work of connecting children, families and communities to nature. Our 2017 International Conference drew nearly 900 people from 22 countries. Hope to see you in May! Register at www.childrenandnature.org. And please help spread the word. Thanks.


With summer just around the corner, this is the time that many families start to think about summer camps. Young people—the ones lucky enough to have attended a school, church or other organized camp, or to have camped with their family or friends — can offer moving testimony to the power of experience in the natural world.

When I was researching Last Child in the Woods, one boy told me of the sensory awakening he experienced watching a campfire: “The red and orange flames dancing in the darkness, the smoky fumes rising up, burning my eyes and nostrils.”

In addition to exciting the senses, camps can touch the heart. At a middle school in San Diego, a girl described the lasting impression of her camp experience atop San Diego County’s Palomar Mountain. “My family is not one that believes in camping or spending time in the outside world,” she told me. “The only time I can remember having lived in nature, in the open, was at sixth-grade camp. There, I was truly comfortable, walking down paths that weren’t paved. I felt I truly belonged somewhere in the scheme of things.” Even now, long after the fact, she conjures up that time in her mind. “Sometimes, I just want to get away from the world, so I dwell in nature through my thoughts and memories.”

Like many environmental educators, camp leaders and conservationists, Madhu Narayan, a Girl Scout leader in San Diego, was shaped by her own childhood experiences in nature. She was just three months old when her parents, recent immigrants from India, took her camping for the first time. In later years, her parents drove across the West, camping as they went.

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Narayan figures her parents didn’t have a lot of money and camping was an inexpensive way to see their nation of choice. “We moved through days of beautiful weather, and then the rains came,” she said. During a lightning storm, the wind blew away the family’s tent, and they slept in the car listening to the banshees of wind and rain howl and crash through the woods.

Even now, at thirty, Narayan shivers as she tells this story.

The great worth of outdoor education programs is their focus on the elements that have always united humankind: driving rain, hard wind, warm sun, forests deep and dark—and the awe and amazement that our Earth inspires, especially during a human’s formative years.

But that nature experience at our nation’s camps could be lost if nature camps allow their mission be become diluted, if they attempt to please everyone all the time.

Today, camps compete with any number of other institutions to provide services not directly related to nature: computer classes, weight-loss clinics, business seminars, and so on. These are important programs, and will undoubtedly continue. But camps might well realize their greatest growth potential by providing families with more of what is so rarely offered elsewhere: direct experiences in nature. The potential for expanding this market will grow as parents learn more about the relationship between nature experience and healthy child development.

True, many camps are now tech-dominated, and too many have disappeared altogether. But this is also true: summer and day camps affiliated with the American Camp Association (ACA) not only give tens of thousands of children the gift of nature every year, but they’re also responsible for preserving as many as 170,000 acres of undeveloped land, an area 30,000 acres larger than Zion National Park.

Nature-oriented camps are also taking new forms. Among camp trends: a gradual increase in camp participation, with day camps (some in urban areas) increasing in number faster than resident camps. Family-oriented camps are also increasingly popular, and that is associated with another growing subset of camps that address the challenges and capacities of young people with medical disorders.

ACA offers a list of more than 2,400 accredited camps, including camps focused on providing experiences in the natural world. Also, camps aren’t only for kids anymore. At Campgrounded.org, for example, you can learn about summer camps for adults.

The testimonials of the good people who work at nature camps are moving. Year after year, they bring children to nature and nature to children. Every child deserves to experience the healing qualities of the natural world.

Yet where I live, in San Diego County — the most biologically diverse region in the United States — too many children have never been to the mountains, or even to the ocean. “In my first counseling job, with another organization, I took children with AIDS to the mountains who had never been out of their urban neighborhoods,” Girl Scout leader Narayan told me. “One night, a nine-year-old woke me up. She had to go to the bathroom. We stepped outside the tent and she looked up. She gasped and grabbed my leg. She had never seen the stars before. That night, I saw the power of nature on a child. She was a changed person.  From that moment on, she saw everything, even the camouflaged lizard that everyone else skipped by. She used her senses. She was awake.”

Given the growing nature deficit, many of us believe that offering children direct contact with nature — getting their feet wet and hands muddy—should be at the top of the list of vital camp experiences, stimulating a renewed shared purpose. It’s time for a nature camp revival.


Richard Louv’s newest book, VITAMIN N, offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life in urban, suburban and rural communities. His other books include:  LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age. His next book, to be published in November, is OUR WILD CALLING, about the changing relationship between humans and other animals. He is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. Follow Richard Louv on Facebook and @RichLouv on Twitter.

 

 

Versions of this piece originally appeared on the American Camp Association website, and in Last Child in the Woods.

Additional Reading and Resources

List of accredited ACA camps.
American Camp Association® and the Children & Nature Network Announce a Partnership to Connect Children and Families to Nature
American Camp Association — An Interview with Richard Louv: Using the Nature Principle and Camps to Reduce Nature-Deficit Disorder
A Camp for Kids Who Love to Dig into the Dirt
Family camps offer multiple benefits for parenting practices, family relationships and interaction with nature
5 Ways Summer Camp Helps Your Child Prepare for Adulthood

Photo credits: United Way of the Lower Mainland & Islandwood

7 Comments

  1. Here at Oglebay Institute in Wheeling, WV, we offer a residential nature camp for 10-15 year olds called Junior Nature Camp, now in it’s 71st year. Our JNC counselors are often kids who’ve attended camp since they were 10. We have one family on its 4th generation of campers, a few families in their 3rd generation! Each year, we have a few kids that are very unsure about what camp will be like. They’re afraid of bees; they’re afraid of the dark; they’ve never been away from home. Usually, after the first campfire, we have no more homesickness. Campers attend morning sessions which rotate through four topics. Stream study, mosses, tree id, knot tying skills, raptor biology, or food science. One of my favorites is “Carrion, my wayward son.” Of course, it’s about decomposition. Kids get up early (on their own!) each morning at 7 am for a bird walk, then eat the best oatmeal they’ve ever tasted.
    We love greeting campers every year; seeing how they’ve grown and witnessing their love for science and nature. It’s one of my favorite times of year, watching teens and tweens bond in the outdoors.

    Reply
  2. Given the name of Richard’s effort “children & nature”, the point about camps should not come as the surprise revelation it did to me, but just the title immediately brought up memories of a Boys Club camp in Vista, CA called Green Oaks that I attended in the 60’s.
    Aside from growing up as a surfer, I cannot overstate how powerful an influence those days at camp were for me. At this moment, I’m thinking about flashlight hikes we took at night through the hills and how adventurous they seemed, just like a number of other moments that happen when nature becomes the primary experience instead of an entertainment.
    I learned who I was at my core when I connected with the reality around me at camp and have held tightly to that ever since.

    Reply
  3. At age 14 I was the Jr. Nature Cabin Program Counselor at a Y camp in the 1970s. At the 30th year reunion, my mentor and I were disappointed to see the nature cabin turned into a staff lounge. Our offers to help revive the program fell on deaf ears. I have heard similar stories elsewhere. Camps defend their withdrawal from natural history programming by stating that these programs do not put “heads-in-beds” the way zip lines do, and that they cannot find qualified staff to run these programs.
    We need to find ways to provide quality training for young adults to do real (not Project Wild simulations) nature programming at camps. Camp Pemigewaseett (sp?) has been training nature counselors for many years, but this type of program needs to be expanded, as they only prepare 15 people a year.

    Reply
  4. The most rewarding job I have had ( I have been a teacher for 15 years), was with the Orange County Outdoor Science School. The program bussed 6th graders from all over southern California up to a retreat center in the San Bernadino mountains.
    When they arrived, the busses were full of kids who had never been out of their urban locales. They got off the busses with aloof attitudes and disdain for our rustic cabins, non-take out food, and silly camp songs.
    By the time they left 5 days later, they were all transformed. Nearly all of them wept as they boarded their busses to go home.
    My favorite memory is of their faces the first time they saw the night sky unpoluted by the lights of the cities. They would stand, heads tilted back as far as possible, mouths agape in awe.
    One week, a counselor could not come up, so I took over his cabin of boys from Hollywood. They behaved as the rest usually did. I made a deal with them, that If they would try to just enjoy themselves, we would get to see a bear at some point. Of course there was no way for me to guarantee a bear, but they were common visitors to our fish pond.
    Sadly, all week long, no bears had made their way to the pond. The boys, however, had transformed from stylish, aloof, and uninterested, into dirty, unkempt, explorers of nature.
    Friday morning came and we were saying our tearful good-byes. We took one last walk around the site to share our favorite moments of the week. As we came around the bend to the fish pond, we all gasped and halted as we saw a medium sized black bear enjoying his morning bass.
    The boys all looked at me in amazement.
    We stood for several silent minutes before the bear caught our scent and took his breakfast into the forest. These wonderful boys, 12 of them, from the very urban world of Beverly Hills, all looked at me with tear filled eyes and thanked me for giving them this experience.
    As they rode off in the bus, waving and singing and smiling, I felt like I had expeienced something magical. Their experience changed them, and it changed me.
    I am still looking for a way to get back into that kind of program. It was magic!

    Reply
    • Richard Louv

      Thanks, Nik, for this great story.

      Reply
  5. There is no doubt that camp delivers significant outcomes, among them an affinity for nature and an interest in exploration that lasts well beyond the camp experience itself. It is also well documented that children from low income backgrounds have far fewer opportunities to engage with the natural world, and as a consequence, miss out on the educational and health benefits that such engagements provide. Thanks to the work that Richard Louv and his peers have brought to light, the mission of organizations like the John Austin Cheley Foundation has greater meaning today…”Funding need-based camperships for high potential youth to attend extended-stay wilderness summer camps that have a proven track record of positively impacting youth development” – See more at: http://www.cheleyfoundation.org

    Reply
  6. Thank you for all your research and writing. We are trying to do exactly this: provide students from low income backgrounds at our NYC public school with a sleep away summer camp experience. This is the second year of our fundraising efforts. We have wonderful camps partnering with us, helping to get the cost as low as possible. The experience was absolutely life changing for last year’s group. We are trying to get the word out, with our Go Fund Me Campaign https://www.gofundme.com/ice-summer-camp-fund . Any suggestions for fundraising or campership ideas would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply

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