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The Nature Camp Solution – Why, How, and WOW!

 

Author: Dr. Mariana Altrichter – Photographer: Peter Sherman

As an environmentalist and conservation biologist, I have been growing aware of the lack of interest among the adult population to make daily choices based on the welfare of environment. People seem to know about our pressing environmental issues, but do not translate this knowledge into behavior change. At the same time, as a mother of two young girls, I became more educated of the pervasive effects of screens and the importance of outdoor play for the overall health of children.

I realized that my girls had few opportunities to play outdoors with other kids. In our daily family excursions outdoors, I was surprised by the absence of young teens walking in the woods, biking on mountain trails, kayaking, or playing in the rocks (things that I definitely did when I was that age!). Where are they? I wondered… 

I decided to start a nature-based environmental education program in Prescott to inspire love for our natural world, love for outdoor adventures, and love for biodiversity. If these kids have fun in the woods now, I thought, in a few years from now they will be the teenagers enjoying the woods that I don’t see now; and my daughters will have a community of nature-loving friends.

Nature Camp: “All Children in the Woods” started in October 2014.  My underlying principles that permeate all activities we do in camp are respect and care for nature and each other, cooperation instead of competition, and nature is amazing. I design daily schedules based on a theme (i.e. “trees” or “monsoons” etc.) and follow a loose routine where I mix play, exploration, art, creativity, group games, songs, building, quiet solo time, journaling, and free time. I often bring a book related to the theme to read during quiet time.

 

 

We start with an opening circle where we greet each other and the woods, sing, and play big group games. Then we separate in two age groups: Bobcats 5-7 yrs old and Cougars 8-10 yrs old (although the 7 and 8 yr old kids can choose what group to join). Each group has one or two instructors, called at our camp, “coyotes”.

Each camper creates a special spot which they can decorate, build, and make personal in any way they want. I reduce the number of unnatural things I bring to camp to a minimum: shovels and buckets, toilet paper, bandannas and sometimes a rope. All other activities use only nature. We sit on the ground, eat our lunch on the ground or up in trees, go potty in the woods, play with dirt, pine needles, rocks. Thus, we spend 7 hours in the forest without hearing or seeing human infrastructure other than what we build ourselves.

The “learning” at camp often occurs organically, rather than directed, embedded in everything else. Although I create a schedule by the minute with detailed activities, I tell my “coyotes” that we have to be open to improvise or completely change course based on the children’s lead.

This is the advantage of not being tied to a curricula, or meeting standards. Just keeping the underlying principles, with basic “no hurting feelings, bodies, or nature” rules, the kids have plenty of space, time, and freedom to be creative, imaginative, and playful.

Indeed, often the most amazing, creative, and fun activities have come up spontaneously from the kids (not my detailed program!).  For example, while I was reading a book about settlers developing a town next to a river and polluting it in the process, one of the kids was fidgeting with the dirt and moving sticks and pebbles around. Although I was a little annoyed that he was “distracting the group away from my reading” I allowed him to continue and by the end of the book he said, “Look, I am building here a settlement where people and nature live together. Do you want to help me?”.

This became the most epic group building cooperative project ever! The whole day they built homes, created miniature forest among the houses, made lakes and rivers, built a “community center,” all while talking, negotiating, deciding as a group, cooperating. I was at the verge of tears the whole time, feeling, “This is it; this is magical!”

Since I started this program, we have had about 190 days in the forest and about 300 children have participated. Several of the older kids who “graduated” from camp have been coming back as helpers. They help the younger group and provide excellent role models as respectful, caring and outdoors-loving preteens.

As a college educator, I also recognize the importance of hands-on experiential education for students. Thus, I opened this camp to Prescott College students who want to participate in any way: as an independent study, for a senior projects, for a course assignments, or just for gaining experience. Many classes have done field trips with their students to visit Nature Camp. All my instructors are or were college students who became interested in working at my camp after being introduced to it in one way or another. Some of them are now elementary or college teachers, bringing to their jobs the conviction of the importance of nature-based environmental education.

To learn more about Nature Camp: All Children in the Woods or to reach Dr. Altrichter, check out Educational Expeditions’ Facebook page — Observation, internship, and volunteer opportunities are always available!

 

 

 

Is that even STEM?! Early EE & Nature Play

Before the buckets of sticks, branch cross-cuts, rocks, shells, moss, and more were even unpacked the children tiptoed in. As if drawn by an unseen magnetic force, tiny hands reached for the sticks, “tree cookies”, and shells, and we heard the excited question again and again and again, “Are these real?!

Earlier in the month AAEE teamed up with the Center for Nature and Place-based Early Childhood Education to host an early childhood environmental education & STEM space at the Children’s Learning & Play Festival in Scottsdale. We shared the space with many great organizations, including the lead organizer, The Museum of Science and Sustainability (MoSS). We loaded up a truck with nature’s loose parts of all kinds, some paints and brushes, and a whole bunch of enthusiasm. 400+ children, 300+ tree cookies, a couple gallons of paint, and 7 hours of laughter later, we realized parents and early childhood educators alike deeply agree: we need more nature play.

 

But why nature play?

Why tree cookies?

Is that even STEM?

Is that even EE?

We’re glad you asked!

 

 

 

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math and is a concept stemming (ha!) from a nationwide push to increase proficiency in these subjects through integrative and innovative approaches. Increasingly, environmental education is seen as one of the best approaches to achieving STEM goals in the United States. STEM for older children can be anything from water quality monitoring to building solar panels. However, STEM & EE in the early years look very different.

At AAEE we always promote developmentally appropriate practice, which is educational practice based on research about how young children learn and develop. Developmentally appropriate early EE & STEM may take the shape of open-ended and inquiry-based explorations or simply playing in and with nature. This might be creating towers or fairy worlds with loose parts, building forts, decorating story stones, making mud soup, watching bugs, or caring for a garden. These simple practices give young children the opportunity to ask questions, test hypothesis, discover the fundamentals of disciplines such as physics or ecology, build early literacy and numeracy skills, and so much more.

Early EE and nature-based STEM learning can also combat the growing concerns about Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). NDD is not a medical term, but a useful phrase to describe the effects we experience from our increasing disconnect with the natural world, including decreased use of the senses, attention issues, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, and indifference towards the natural world.

Play in and with nature is an easy remedy and there are many resources to help parents and educators make a real difference in their children’s lives. For starters, check out AAEE’s Early Childhood Environmental Education resource page, download a free copy of the NAAEE Early Childhood EE Guidelines for Excellence, or visit the website our national early EE partner the Natural Start Alliance.

You can also stay tuned to our blog and subscribe to our newsletter! In response to the growing field of early childhood EE, early STEM, nature play, nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and more, AAEE will be partnering with the Natural Start Alliance to increase advocacy and resources for the field here in Arizona. Look for upcoming blogs on topics such as What is Early Childhood EE? Nature Play & the latest research on Nature-based Learning, Nature Play in the Indoor Classroom, Nature Play in the Desert, and more!

 

If you want to join the conversation and help us advocate for early EE and nature play in Arizona  comment and let us know or follow us on Facebook; we love hearing from you!