Having directed children’s camps all of my adult life, and now having hit my mid-50s, I have noticed a paradigm shift in the way campers and their families perceive the great outdoors.
In my own days of childhood recreation and leisure time, nothing–I mean nothing–beat going outside to play. In fact, I was out there in all sorts of weather, year-round, until dark, every day.
In my quest, I explored the local woods, fields, and waterways. My particular interest was animals–hence the outside-until-dark every day, with a strip search/shakedown prior to coming into the house.
To a lesser degree, I also loved trees, wild herbs, flowers, and edible plants. My feeling was that the outdoors was great!
Oh, but the times they are a-changing! Children today have been raised in an era of over-accessible information, entertainment, and electronic distraction. I do not know any teenagers who don’t have 122 cable channels, cell phone, Nintendo, Xbox, PlayStation, iPod, laptop, and Kindle!
Do I blame them? No. Their parents were test pilots for this age of technology, and their environment is resplendent in gadgetry.
With all those cool techno-entertainments, who would want to go outside? In fact, over the years, the children who attend the summer camp I direct have informed me that outside time equals punishment.
My campers are often surprised that outside is not climate-controlled like home. In short, for them at least, it is the mysterious outdoors.
My camp is located halfway up Blue Mountain near Linglestown, Pa. The campus itself is nestled in 69 acres of Eastern Woodlands that are protected from hunting. One is likely to see an American Bald Eagle soaring above the ridge, and deer and turkey in abundance. The camp hosts giant, rare woodpeckers to minute moth hummingbirds.
It is safe to say that the camp is rustic. The campers have intellectual disabilities, and many are from the city of Harrisburg. The question becomes, “How do we get tech-savvy, inner-city kids to appreciate an outdoor setting?”
The answer is to make magic. Most video games and many movies that appeal to today’s youth involve magic, from Harry Potter to The Legend of Zelda.
I am not referring to anything occult, but to the wonder in a young mind that asks, “How did they do that?”
Here are some “tricks of the trade.”
The “I Smell Spiders!” Night Hike
Nothing is more magical than the outdoors at night. I often like to lead short, small-group hikes in the early evening that begin in an open meadow sparkling and twinkling to the glow of fireflies.
We sit on the grass, and I tell tales of the wee folk and fairies of old, explaining how our ancestors misinterpreted these gentle insects as supernatural beings.
We proceed to the woods with me holding the only flashlight. Too many flashlights will foil the darkness and ruin the magic. I then announce, “I smell spiders!” as I move the flashlight closer to the ground until I illuminate a spider in the beam.
The campers exclaim, “How did you do that? Can you really smell spiders?” I then explain the trick.
Like those of most animals, a spider’s eyes reflect light, and so as I walk along the trail, I wave the single flashlight back and forth until I see the greenish reflection, make a mental note, ham up the announcement, and slowly move the flashlight closer to the spider. I then explain how many creatures live and thrive in the night forest.
The depth of the talk can be tailored to the campers’ interest level. The key is to stop teaching before they grow tired of the subject. I always conclude with, “Now you know this secret, and you can amaze your friends back home with it because there are spiders, even in the city!”
I run a day-camp program, so what works in the daytime? Safari Day! This full-day, nature-focused event is one of the most popular days each summer.
To start, we usually have representatives from a local wildlife park visit camp with several animals the children may touch, pet, and sometimes even hold. Members of the park staff discuss each animal as they walk the critters around to interact with campers.
This activity opens our campers’ minds, gently conditions their acceptance of wildlife, and prepares them for a finale. After the interactive show, we talk about plants and all the wonders that plants give us, from food to fly traps.
One of my favorite talks during Safari Day is “What eats a tree?” I begin with the campers’ guesses, which usually include dinosaurs.
The actual focus is fungus, for fungi and mushrooms can easily be found in the forest. I always have some colorful dried specimens on hand, and a full-color field guide. We talk about poisons, medicines, and pizza!
We then send teams out on a scavenger hunt for natural items that include live animals. A point value is assigned to every item found. Living creatures have the highest point value. We run a camp-wide scoring system with high-score prizes, usually snacks and ribbons.
Safari Day concludes with the “Critter Olympics.” Campers use the animals they captured earlier, mostly in the form of insects and amphibians, to compete in a series of faux-Olympic events. If one critter eats another, as often happens, the eaten critter is disqualified.
There are many other nature-based ways to enrich campers’ lives, and you’ll discover your own tricks of the trade. The “magic” is really the effort we bring to our respective camps.
To turn the Mysterious into the Great Outdoors, just say “abracadabra!”
Richard Honeycutt is the director of Camp Sertoma, a summer and year-round respite camp in Harrisburg, Pa. It is owned and operated by The Arc of Dauphin County, a non-profit, membership organization with the primary purpose of providing services and support, with dignity and respect, to people of all ages who have intellectual and developmental disabilities.