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.
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.