NATURE CONNECTIONS: How a Summer Camp Helps Kids Connect with Nature and Each Other

About the Author

Niall Murton is a Camp and Outreach Director for the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. He oversees YMCA Camp Streefland and the Saint Paul Urban Camp Connection, a joint partnership with the National Park Service and the City of Saint Paul. He is a member of Saint Paul’s team of NLC and Children & Nature Network’s Cities Connecting Children to Nature initiative.

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Each summer 4,500 kids from the south metro area of the Twin Cities head outdoors. Coming from under-resourced communities, these children and youth will be connecting to nature through the outdoor programming efforts of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. Many of these campers will be connecting to nature for the first time.

As the Camp & Outreach Director, this makes me proud. With a majority of Americans now living in cities, there has never been a greater need to ensure that young people are meaningfully and intentionally exposed to nature. And it’s especially important that young people spend time in natural spaces that are close by, which we call “nearby nature.” Our day camp offers our campers that opportunity.

We know that when a child has an immersive experience in nature, they’re given a unique opportunity to support personal and interpersonal growth. It turns out that nature-based programming is the perfect platform for youth development and character, also called Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

We understand that all learning is social and emotional. Our core values of honesty, caring, respect, and responsibility are the cornerstone of our programming for engaging young people.

But there’s one thing we have learned: supporting SEL in youth needs to be intentional.

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Our outdoor youth programs are hosted at Phalen Regional Park on the Eastside of Saint Paul and at Hidden Falls Regional Park, part of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area. Campers spend multiple hours with their peers, sharing meals, engaging in hands-on science, and learning about the ecology of the outdoors. These activities demand that young people rely on each other to meet the group’s needs.

This format allows students to, not only connect with nearby green spaces and natural resources, but it also provides opportunities to develop social interactions, communication, and relationships with each other. After all, the key to learning is relationships.

We also knew from the start that we needed to build on existing adult-camper relationship for our programming to have an impact. To foster these relationships, we provide local YMCAs, the City of Saint Paul recreation centers. and other non-profits an exciting opportunity to help their adult staff build or deepen relationships with their youth. For one week, the adult staff is not required to lead the activities. Instead, the YMCA provides seasoned, trained staff from our 10 Twin Cities day camps to lead groups throughout the day, allowing the organization’s staff to hang out with their groups of young people and build relationships on a different level from their typical day-to-day programs.

Staff are constantly working to teach young people SEL competencies like Self-awareness, Self-management, Social awareness, Relationship skills and Responsible decision-making.

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These critical skills can be taught through shared experiences that we create for them. They allow campers to take risks in a safe environment, learn from failures and successes and build connections with each other. Perhaps they try to overcome a fear of heights on the climbing wall or by removing a fish off a pole or challenge themselves to get a bullseye in Archery. Through reflective questions, staff can help campers to tie these skills to their everyday experiences to help them to grow.

Using the outdoors is a special tool for teaching SEL skills!

Over the past three years, we have seen more campers curious about careers in the outdoors. With our program’s multiple partners, we can help them envision the possibility of careers in the YMCA, National Park Service, City Parks & Recreation and other non-profit organizations. Ultimately, we hope to create career pathways for local youth so that our staff will reflect the community demographics.

Although not all cities have easy access to nature-based activities, I encourage those that do to consider the possibilities of embedding it with social and emotional learning by using some of the tools from the Children & Nature Network. Nature-based programs not only enable youth to reconnect with nature in an increasingly digital, high-paced world, but if embedded with social and emotional learning skills, can help develop a sense of belonging to nature.

Editor’s note: C&NN is exploring best practices and strategies to combine youth development and nature-based programs towards a common goal of supporting the positive growth and social-emotional learning of young people. We seek to advance these efforts through our Youth Development Action Area at the C&NN 2020 Leadership Summit and place-based pilots in Atlanta and Grand Rapids. The pilot project is led by the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) in partnership with Thrive Outside, an initiative of Outdoor Foundation and funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. It entails supporting a cohort of service providers in sharing and testing strategies for youth development and nature connection and training young leaders ages 18-26 in understanding their leadership and connecting them with nature to help them reach their full potential as humans and as earth stewards. Join C&NN and leaders from across the country at the 2020 Children & Nature Network Inside-Out Leadership Summit taking place May 7-8 in Atlanta, GA to learn more.

Additional Resources

CCCN Nature Play Video
CCCN Municipal Action Guide

To learn more about ways cities and community partners can incorporate more equitable access to nature check out the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Resource Hub.

Cities Connecting Children to Nature (CCCN) is a joint initiative of the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education and Families and the Children & Nature Network, helps cities increase equitable access to nature to improve the wellbeing of children. CCCN supports a cohort of 18 cities with technical assistance, grants and peer learning for cities to implement nature connection strategies.

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