Back to nature

This summer, Mother Nature will assume the leading role at dozens of summer camps across the Chicago region.

Prompted by a societal movement aimed at increasing children’s exposure to the outdoors, Chicago Park District day camps, dozens of non-profits’ summer series and several regional overnight camps have refocused their programs around the environment.

By no means are eco-camps a new thing, says Gordie Kaplan, executive for the Illinois section of the American Camp Association.

“Back in the day when we were closer to the environment, many camps included learning outdoor living skills using the natural world and conservation and protecting the environment was built into that,” Kaplan says."As we became more urbanized and children more focused on specialized activities, those camps focused on environmental activities found there wasn’t as much interest, so they changed to reflect that change in society.”

That said, specialty camps exist by the thousands catering to technological whiz kids, budding athletes and blossoming actors.

“But (environmentalism) is starting to build again because we’re closer to the tipping point where people realize that understanding how the world is put together is inexorably linked to global warming, vanishing species and our survival and questions about whether we’re destroying our home. And more camp directors are seeing this and becoming part of the mission,” Kaplan says.

The Chicago Park District seized the opportunity to advance environmentalism by designating greenness and nature as the theme for 2008 summer camp program, says Caroline O’Boyle, director of Environment, Culture and Special Events for the Chicago Park District.

A member of the Chicago Wilderness Alliance, the district’s theme aligns with the Alliance’s‘Leave No Child Inside’ initiative and involves incorporating daily nature activities into each of the district’s 200 day camps, which run from June through August.

“Part of‘Leave No Child Inside’ is just getting kids to slow down and take a look at the world around them,” O’Boyle says."So a nature activity can be as simple as having the children lie on their backs and look at the clouds. Another example is collecting and examining bugs under magnifying glasses or creating artwork using found nature objects.”

Exploring ecosystems is especially crucial to children who may never travel beyond the concrete and brick comprising Chicago’s inner city neighborhoods.

“In order for people to care about the world as adults, they need to have early exposure as children and that’s particularly important for children in a city to understand their role in the natural world,” O’Boyle says."What we’re trying to do is guide children’s attention to the nature that’s everywhere around them—even in the most concrete city block, there is nature going on everywhere so they need to understand how they’re part of that whole system.”

Environmental educators agree the sooner these lessons are taught, the greater impact they’ll have, which is why children as young as 2 can participate in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s summer program. A variety of other eco-camps, such as those offered through the Park District of Highland Park’s Heller Nature Center and the Evanston Ecology Center, welcome preschoolers.

Although the 2-year-olds spend most of their time observing the garden’s ecosystems through their senses rather than learning the science, the early exposure cultivates seeds of sustainability.

“There’s research showing that if kids are tied to a piece of land they grow up with a sustainable ethic,” says Matthew Freer, youth programs coordinator at the Botanic Garden."They learn this respect from the green spaces around them, so the earlier you start, the better that is.”

But the senses are no less important for older campers. In fact, the majority of eco-camps use hands-on activities to teach budding naturalists about the habitats in which they’re camping.

“You can’t live in a bubble—you can’t appreciate or protect what you don’t understand and experience,” says Julie Sacco, director at North Park Village Nature Center, the only Chicago Park District that offers several eco-explorers camp sessions for city children ages 5 through 12.

At eco-explorers, a simple trail hike through the 46-acre preserve helps build this understanding, Sacco says. On the hike, the counselor might ask the campers the age of a tree. Some children will say five years, some 5 billion years. By telling the children the tree is as old as their grandparents, they grasp the perspective of the natural system.

And academic appreciation of ecosystems is only the beginning.

“Often when kids come here on field trips, it’s their first experience with nature and they come here terrified of seeing a squirrel climbing a tree and they will ask if there are bears in the woods,” Sacco says."But by the end of the experience, that fear is replaced with a joy from participating in nature and feeling a part of the environment and natural world—they learn it’s fun, natural and normal to be outside and that’s the best way to make sure the next generation has some nature left.”

Older campers, who already have an emotional connection to the natural world but want a more intense experience, can participate in more extreme outdoor adventures.

Overnight campouts, survival skills, animal tracking, rock climbing and whitewater rafting are among the activities fourth- through eight-graders participate in during several seven-week camps offered through Highland Park’s Heller Nature Center.

“Throughout the summer we get a lot of the attitude where children are initially afraid or nervous about staying overnight or trying rock climbing, but walk away from it saying it’s not that scary,” says nature center manager Jeff Smith."Our camps really teach self-confidence, independence and team work.”

One- to two-night campouts ease children into the idea of spending an entire week, or potentially more, away from home, he says.

Environmentally focused residential camps dot the Illinois and Wisconsin countryside and some, such as the eco-camps offered through the Glen Helen Ecology Institute of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, focus entirely on ecology and conservationism.

About a five-hour drive from Chicago, nine specialty themed, week-long camps offered throughout the summer engage 8- through 15-year-olds in the natural world around them.

“With the overnight experience, it’s total immersion so the kids really buy into the theory and value of what we’re teaching,” says Beth Krisko, director of the Institute’s Outdoor Education Center."At residential camps, the practices are continually being reinforced throughout the week so the kids really get into the spirit of it. By the end of the week we’ll have kids encouraging other kids to pick up litter on the trails.”

Robin Huiras is a freelance writer living in Evergreen Park.

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