by Mary Axelson
It actually surprised me that connecting with nature could be so darned dirty. My daughter was covered with mud when I picked her up from Laughing Coyote camp near Longmont, Colorado, but she was glowing. No doubt she hoped the natural camouflage would allow an entire tribe of kids to disappear into the landscape and postpone the end of their new approach to life.
Around the world, there exist myriad camp situations in which children can experience the outdoors. There are camps that strive to keep kids happy and growing while hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, and swimming in lakes. Adventure camps approach the outdoors as a physical challenge, with rock climbing and white water. And a relatively new category of outdoor camp provides mentorship and experiences to encourage a deep connection with nature.
Jon Young, co-founder of Anake Wilderness Awareness School, a camp in Duvall, WA, and author of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, is the inspiration for many of these camps across the country. Young and his confounder, Ingwe (who went by last name only) examined their own great fortune of receiving childhood nature mentoring, and as adults created a process to encourage an indigenous sense of “place” in modern kids.
Young’s methodology was also shaped by a degree in anthropology, and studies of mentoring, the learning through hands-on partnership with older peers, within different cultures. Many of the college-age counselors at the Wilderness Awareness School learn their craft at Anake Outdoor School on the same campus. Thus, connections made in day-to-day studies are easily translated to their young campers, things like survival and wilderness living, tracking, ethnobotany and caretaking, leadership, and cultural studies.
“We front load all of our programs with what we call child passions,” explains Warren Moon, Executive Director of Wilderness Awareness School. “These are things that all children love to do.”
Playing sneaking games, building forts, and tracking animals are examples of child passions. The core routine of an activity called sit spot?sitting still in nature?does not have immediate appeal to kids, but, while kids don’t want to sit still and be aware of nature, they do like hide-and-seek games. Guess what you are doing while hiding? Being very still and aware.
“Camp usually begins with getting kids kind of dirty, wet, into the surrounding, relaxed, connecting with other students, and starting to get into their senses,” says Moon. Eventually, owl eyes (using peripheral vision), fox-walking (quiet walking that does not disturb animals), and listening to birds will be taught as tools to grow sensory awareness.
Moon explains, “We learn how to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, and kids learn which trees are best for rubbing two sticks together. In that process, a kid is learning about trees, but he or she is also developing a relationship.” The next time a child encounters a cedar tree, says Moon, he or she knows it in a different way. As these types of experiences and relationships accumulate?as a plantain soothes the bee sting and that looking at a track makes them a part of the paw print’s story, for example?there emerges a new kind of connection with nature. Ideally, adds Moon, as kids understand that each part of nature plays its own perfect role, they come closer to appreciating their own, unique role in the human community.
Unstructured play in nature improves health and promotes self esteem, and the Wilderness Awareness School provides nearly invisible scaffolding to enrich it. Having nine staff members or volunteers for 27 kids helps. If one kid has their imagination captured by a track, and another by a bug, someone is there to share the wonder and help them formulate questions about it.
Moving into the Mainstream
Camps similar to the Wilderness Awareness program are springing up across the country, with a refreshing simplicity to their mission coupled with an intensity for nature, and this distinguishes them from other, more traditional camps. Natural history is important, but these are not science camps. Nor are the experiences survival camps, although a heavy emphasis on safety in the wilderness is part of the curriculum for lifelong enjoyment, as is instruction about edible and medicinal plants. A “nature connection camp” may soon be understood by people, and traditional outdoor camps that you and I attended as children might be taking a closer look at nature connection goals.
In October of 2014, the American Camp Association (ACA) and the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) announced a partnership to connect children and families to nature and to help parents understand the importance of nature to healthy child development. Noted nature author Richard Louv, who co-founded C&NN, explains, ” Given the nature deficit (among children), I believe that offering children direct contact with nature ? so they can get their feet wet and hands muddy ? should be at the top of the list of vital camp experiences.”
Asked for advice on picking a summer camp, Louv advises, “Look for camps that provide direct experiences in nature, particularly ones that involve unstructured time.” ACA provides a search engine for parents to find accredited camps on their website?s ?Find a Camp” tool, with options ranging from nature exposure to farming and gardening. As the outdoor summer camp experience vies for attention with others offering computers, sports, business, and weight-loss, ACA and C&NN see growth in nature-related day programs and family programs.
Marketing nature connection to parents can sometimes be more difficult than actually connecting kids to the activities themselves. Wilderness Awareness School, for example, already offers programs year-round and aims for a strong, family community that stretches beyond the three months of summer vacation. With a thriving community behind them, however, camps like the this one are sure to gain momentum as educators, parents, and even health care providers see an increasing need to bring children closer to the outdoors.
Want to learn one of the games taught at Coyote Camp? Here?s one called ?Firekeeper? that will keep kids and adults on the move and thinking, literally, on their feet. A nature connection game from Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature, by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown (shortened from the published instructions).
The guide introduces the game with a mythic story from “a long time ago, back when humans still talked to animals all the time, the humans on the earth would spend their winters shivering with cold.”
Abbreviated story: Huge monsters, called “Firekeepers” guard the fire that humans do not have. Firekeepers cannot see, but they have exceptional hearing. This is a game of seeing if you can steal the fire from these selfish monsters.
Everyone stands in a circle, barefoot if terrain allows.
The goal is for someone standing on the outside of the circle to stalk into the middle and steal an object from under the nose of the Firekeeper without ever being heard and pointed at by the blindfolded Firekeeper.
Catch Sneakers. The Firekeeper sits blindfolded on the ground in the middle of the circle. Find something to represent fire (car keys work well). If the Firekeeper hears someone sneaking in, he or she will point in the direction of the sound. If the point is accurate, you, as referee, announce it, and the sneaker returns to the edge of the circle. If the point is not accurate, you say so, and the sneakers continue.
Firekeepers should get about six or seven points before switching roles.
Manage the Crowd: Each sneaker on the edge of the circle waits the referee points at them offering a chance to sneak in. Allow only two or three sneakers at any time.
Inside the Mind of the Mentor: This game will get participants fox-walking and sneaking. People seem to really “get” the importance of moving slowly and quietly. They realize how much noise they make when they move normally and they see how easily animals and other humans can hear their approach.
This game also emphasizes the power of listening to subtle sounds. And, this game offers opportunity to take off shoes and expose bare feet to the earth.
**Editor?s note: This article was written by an Outdoor Families Magazine contributor. The listing of camps and content of the article reflects the author?s point of view. OFM does not endorse one particular camp experience, and encourages all readers to check with their local and national resources, such as the American Camp Association, for experiences that fit their children?s age, ability, and preferences for activity.