Finn Camper is an even-tempered appraiser of summer camps. The ten-year-old from Chevy Chase has been to music camp (“fine”), sports camp (“pretty good”), and baseball camp (“I hated that”). His favorite is run by the Audubon Naturalist Society at Woodend Nature Sanctuary, a 44-acre preserve five minutes from his home, where kids explore the outdoors in programs with names like “Where the Wild Things Roam” and “Magical Potions and Slimy Notions.” In Finn’s favorite program, “Starry Safari,” he learned about night creatures such as the vampire bat. Finn’s camp friends call him the Happy Camper, a reference to his last name.
Some kids today have a lot of demands on their time. With math homework, soccer matches, trumpet practice, and online games all competing for their attention, they don’t spend much time outdoors—and a growing body of literature shows they suffer physical and psychological consequences as a result.
At nature camps like Audubon, parents get a chance to pull kids away from computer screens and into the forest. Counselors and staff work to mix an ecological curriculum with traditional camp fare—group games, corny skits, wacky songs.
These nature camps differ in approach, but they all aim to impress children with the grandeur and wonder of the wilderness. At Congressional Camp, a 71-year-old Falls Church day camp, kids learn about conservation and mingle with the turtles at Tripps Run Creek.
The mission of Discovery Creek’s summer camps is “to turn young minds into stewards of the earth,” director Anne Zuk says. Based in Glen Echo on the banks of Minnehaha Creek, Discovery Creek blends free play with structured activities such as scavenger hunts in the woods and lessons in which kids build anemometers to measure wind speed.
Zuk teaches Little Explorers—the four-to-six-year-olds—about metamorphosis. At first they bungle the word’s pronunciation. “It takes about a week,” Zuk says. “By Friday, they go home and they’ve got it.”
To reach the pond at Woodend, children walk down a wood-chip path through tulip trees and honeysuckle. It’s a picturesque tableau, but not all the campers see it that way. “The kids are concerned about tigers and anacondas—and they’re serious,” says camp director Karen Vernon. “They learn a lot about animals in school and from TV, but not from the real outdoors.”
The benefits of a relationship with nature are distinct from those of physical exercise, says Julie Dieguez, coordinator of the Maryland No Child Left Inside Coalition, a nonprofit environmental-education coalition. She emphasizes the importance of a tactile knowledge of nature and believes that a hike through woods enriches children differently than a soccer game “on a nicely mowed and fertilized field.” Says Dieguez: “Seeing wildlife, smelling wet earth, hearing a forest filled with birds, catching a crayfish—those firsthand experiences hit home and have a memorable impact that ignites curiosity and a sense of exploration and discovery.”
In his book Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv introduced the phenomenon of nature-deficit disorder, which he defined as “the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.” A 2003 Cornell University study, for example, found that children living in “high-nature conditions” coped better with life’s stresses than children who lived in homes isolated from nature.
At Woodend, Finn has seen monarch caterpillars feast on milkweed growing wild in the meadows. He has seen praying-mantis egg sacs the size of your thumb. He says he once watched as a flying squirrel miscalculated its flight path and sailed into a teacher’s hair. The only thing Finn hasn’t seen is a computer. Laptops, cell phones, game consoles—all are banned at Audubon. Finn doesn’t miss electronics at camp. “Who needs all that?” he says, though at home he likes to play online games.
Vernon says campers at Audubon often don’t want to go outside when it’s raining. But she tells them they won’t melt, that water doesn’t hurt, that there are bullfrogs and red-backed salamanders to be found. “Then they have a really good time,” she says. “They run around and splash in puddles and do the things I remember doing when I was a kid.”
Sara Melmed, 17, has spent the last three summers working as a counselor at Calleva, a camp with the tagline “Because adventure is not in the guidebooks and beauty is not on the maps.” Calleva is like Audubon injected with adrenaline: A fleet of about 25 buses whisks kids every morning from the Riley’s Lock base near Poolesville to locations across Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania for rock climbing, whitewater canoeing, horseback riding, and other adventures in which the only rule is to keep moving. On the bus ride home, Melmed says, kids sleep soundly.
Calleva has a nature curriculum—it keeps river-ecology and “growing green” instructors on staff—but the underlying philosophy is that children soak up the outdoors best when they’re moving through it. “Kids like to learn new things and to achieve, to learn they can accomplish something,” says Julie Clendenin, Calleva’s outreach director.
Melmed’s mother, Lisa, has sent all three of her kids to the camp. “Calleva keeps them so busy doing active engagement,” she says, “that there’s no time to think, ‘Ooh, I’d better text somebody.’ ”
Melmed’s Calleva stories are about conquering fear. There was the time she walked barefoot on a trail of hot coals, and then there was a seven-year-old girl named Isabel, who refused to make a “wet exit” from a kayak. Isabel cried and skulked to the far side of the dock. Melmed consoled her, then demonstrated, spilling herself gently from kayak to lake. As Isabel watched, her face softened from terror to indifference. Melmed asked, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
With no ready answer, Isabel stepped into the kayak, held her nose, and rolled. When she emerged, Melmed says, she looked surprised. She wanted to do it again.Next >> Nature Camps in Washington