No child left inside

Kids find nature at camp

"They took all the trees, put them in a tree museum, 

They charged the people a dollar and half just to see them.
Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got ‘till it's gone
They paved paradise, put up a parking lot." — Joni Mitchell

Ever since Richard Louv introduced the concept of “nature deficit disorder” in his bestselling book, Last Child in the Woods, parents, educators, and legislators have worked to reconnect kids with the natural world. While organizations such as the Children and Nature Network, founded by Louv, connect research to the importance of nature in children’s health and well-being, the bi-partisan No Child Left Inside Coalition, led by director Don Baugh, seeks to ensure federal funding for environmental education in schools. “An environmentally literate child is more likely to achieve academically, be more motivated, and have a better chance at a job in the emerging green economy,” says Baugh.

Camp directors couldn’t agree more. Summer camp was started in America 151 years ago as a way to get children out of the city and into the woods, where they could breathe clean air and learn outdoor skills. During the Industrial Revolution, many kids needed respite from overcrowded streets and long hours working in factories. Today’s parents are sending kids to camp to escape a different kind of pollution: an overabundance of electronics, and an overcrowded schedule that often leaves children no time for unstructured play.

“Kids at camp don’t just reconnect with nature, they live it,” says Dave Devey, owner and director of Falcon Camp, an overnight camp for boys and girls ages 6 to 16 in Carrollton, Ohio. Active in the American Camp Association (ACA) and his state legislature on issues involving youth, camping, and education, and a member of the Northeast Ohio No Child Left Inside Coalition steering committee, Devey believes camp is one of the few places left where children can explore both nature and themselves in a caring, safe environment.

“What does a frog feel like? You can learn about frogs from pictures, but if you want to know what a frog really feels like, you’ve got to pick one up. Children are fascinated to experience nature in real life, to see and touch live animals instead of just pictures on a computer or television screen,” Devey says.

As Curator of Conservation Education for the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, Margie Marks oversees the Zoo’s Animal Adventures Day Camp, which offers seven one-week programs for children ages 4 to 13. Marks says, “Kids today learn a lot from shows like Animal Planet, but many have never touched a live animal. We offer hands-on experiences so they can put what they see on TV into real life, and we use those opportunities to teach conservation concepts about limited resources and protecting the Earth. We teach families how to pack a waste-free lunch, and get kids in the practice of recycling at camp and at home. Parents notice positive changes in their children after Zoo Camp. They’ll even pay more attention to the family pet!”

The ACA attempts to track the positive outcomes that children develop at camp with a new evaluation tool that measures the emotional connections youth ages 10 to 17 may make to nature as a result of a camp program.  ACA also helps camps maximize their nature education opportunities with resources for camp programs and professional development for camp staff. “Since 2001 we have seen a 10% increase in camps that offer environmental education programs and a 7,875% increase in camps that specialize in environmental education programs,” says Cheryl Magen, president of ACA’s Keystone Section serving Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Karla Schell, Director of Camp Redwing, an overnight camp run by the Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania in Renfrew, Pennsylvania, also sees kids change when they get to experience the outdoors. “One of the big things we see is more willingness to explore the world around them and not be frightened of it. If a family has outdoor experiences, then summer camp is another component in their children’s environmental education as a whole. But for some kids, this is brand new – they have never slept under the stars, they have never caught a bug to examine the different parts of it, they have never thought about how they fit into the world. Part of what we do is to help kids to feel safe outdoors.”

At Camp Redwing, creek hikes are a favorite activity, where girls can learn to respect the wildlife they see in their natural habitats. “They understand that we go to be an observer and to preserve,” says Schell. “We practice ‘Leave No Trace,’ so kids for generations can have these opportunities.”

“Much of our school and home electronic learning is insulated. There is a huge difference in observing versus doing, and the educational benefits associated with being actively hands on. At camp, children learn the interrelationship of everything in nature. Campers return home more observant and with a larger understanding of what they see,” says Devey.

Like many camps, Camp Redwing also blends environmental education with community service. Canoeing on the Connequenessing and other nearby rivers, campers see first-hand the old tires that have found their way there from flooding or dumping. Now campers and counselors are cleaning up the rivers and learning recycling by pulling out the tires and using them to build a new “gaga” court at camp.

Tony Passarelli of Monroeville, PA, whose daughters are regular Redwing campers, says, “My girls love that when they come to camp they make new friends and they try new activities that challenge them and help them to gain confidence.  The girls come home from camp more mature, with a wonderful sense of their potential as future leaders.”

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone regional office service Pennsylvania and Delaware. Learn more at and