Camps go green

If you want your kids to grow into environmentally-responsible citizens, tell them to go play in the dirt. That’s the message of a Cornell University study by Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies, who found that children who participated in “wild” nature activities like hiking, camping, and playing in the woods were more likely to have pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors as adults.

Research shows that people who work in conservation and environmental protection all have one thing in common: they all had formative experiences playing in natural settings. 

Jan Mattern, director of Youngworld Day Camp in Franklin Park’s new Blueberry Hill Park, says that children learn about the ecosystem by using their powers of observation, and understanding that everything they see plays a part in nature.  “We teach children to keep nature’s bounty where it should be. Moss and mushrooms on a decaying tree serve a purpose, so instead of kicking it off, we talk about who might be using it,” says Mattern.

Curing nature-deficit disorder

A 1999 survey by the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research found that children aged 3-12 spent 27% of their time with electronic media and only 1% of their time outdoors. Author Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, says it’s only getting worse. Louv, who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 national bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, links a lack of nature experiences to rises in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

In an article for the American Camp Association, Louv says, “My call to reconnect children to nature is also an invitation to protect and nurture the spiritual lives of children and adults, and ultimately to protect the natural world by saving an endangered indicator species — the child in nature.”

Heeding Louv’s call, Chatham University is introducing Camp E.D.E.N (Explore. Dream. Enlighten. Nurture) for grades K-3 to its summer day camp programs. Blending Louv’s work with environmental education, Camp E.D.E.N. aims to re-introduce children to nature and inspire a lifelong sense of wonder for the earth.

For nearly 150 years, summer camp has been a place for children to reconnect with nature. Now some camps are also teaching children how to protect the natural world with eco-friendly or “green” messages, activities, and facilities.

Where does it go?

Youngworld Day Camp encourages recycling by teaching children about what happens to paper and bottles after they’re placed in the proper bins. Mattern says that even swim time is an opportunity to teach kids about the pool’s solar cover, evaporation and water conservation.

Water is also the focus of the Pennsylvania Resources Council’s free day camp, held for two days in July at Allegheny County’s Green Tree Nature Center and Butler County’s Jennings Environmental Education Center.  In The Wonderful World of Water, presented in partnership with Pennsylania American Water Company (PAWC), PRC environmental educator Nancy Martin-Silber says children learn that non-point source (NPS) pollution is the biggest problem facing North America.

Because both PRC camps are held in “green” facilities, campers are required to bring zero-waste lunches packed with reusable containers and silverware, and cloth napkins. Martin-Silber says that one of the goals of the camp is to help kids learn how greener lifestyle choices – like a reusable water bottle – can help the environment.

For the past three summers, PRC has worked with PAWC to teach children how little bits of pollutants like oil, gas, fertilizer, pet waste, and more can add up to a significant pollution problem. “We use games and activities to help children identify the sources of NPS pollution, and talk about what we can all do to reduce human impact on the earth,” says Martin-Silber.

With naturalists and Earth Force educators, PRC’s campers ages 7-12 explore the watershed, experiment with water filtration and purification techniques, test water quality, learn about evaporation and water conservation, and discover the relationship between the watershed and the animals that live there.

Would you drink this?

In 2008, Pittsburgh naturalist Verna McGinley introduced campers to the frogs, toads, turtles, snakes, and salamanders that call the local wetlands home. Another activity teaches kids how to use the iron filtered from abandoned mine drainage water to tie-dye shirts. But the most delicious activity, says Martin-Silber, is the Edible Earth Parfait. “Kids layer ice, ginger ale, ice cream, crumbled cookies, chocolate chips, and a top layer of cherry juice – representing a pollutant – in a cup,” says Martin-Silber. “When they push a straw through all the layers and suck on the straw, they can see how the cherry juice moves into the ice layer. It’s a good example of how surface pollution moves into the aquifer.”

Kids can also study the water of the Three Rivers in the Carnegie Science Center’s River Camp, a full-day camp run in two sessions for children ages 8-9 and 10-12. In River Camp, kids spend half the day on a RiverQuest boat, learning about the rivers and taking water samples. The rest of the day is spent at the Science Center, examining water samples under the microscope and discovering more about life in and on the river.

Both PRC and the American Camp Association (ACA) serve as resources for camps that want to incorporate more “green” into their programs and facilities. Michael Chaveau, executive director of ACA’s Keystone section serving Pennsylvania and Delaware, says that eco-friendly signs at camps range from composting kitchen scraps to compostable kitchenware to compost toilets.

Siobhan Lynam, PRC’s Manager of Environmental Education, says, “Even summer camps that aren’t environmentally-focused ask about how they can have less of an impact on the environment. Our activities involve a lot of team work, because that’s part of the message we want campers to learn – that if we want to find better solutions for our world, we all have to work together.”

Learn more about nature play, nature-deficit disorder, and the No Child Left Inside Coalition at…

“When children become truly engaged with the natural world at a young age, the experience is likely to stay with them in a powerful way — shaping their subsequent environmental path.”   — Nancy M. Wells and Kristi S. Lekies, Cornell University, “Children, Youth and Environments,” 2006

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

For more info:

American Camp Association
Keystone Section
20 Limekiln Pike
Glenside, PA 19038