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In this age of screens and busy schedules, nature day camps are in demand, and many offer a more diverse array of experiences than parents probably realize.
"Offering children direct contact with nature - getting their feet wet and hands muddy - should be at the top of the list of vital camp experiences," says Richard Louv, author of "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" (Algonquin Books, 2008). His writings are cited by many nature camp directors as inspiring their work.
Nature-oriented day camps are held in county parks, private preserves, botanical gardens and other green places across the country.
"There's a real movement toward helping more kids connect with nature," says Sarah Milligan-Toffler, executive director of the Children in Nature Network, a Minneapolis-based non-profit group for which Louv is chairman emeritus.
Nature camps generally combine immersion in natural outdoor settings with art and science education, says Michael Goldman, education manager at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitlin, Florida. It is one of dozens of Audubon centers across the country that together offer nature camps to over 6,000 kids each summer. In addition to camps for younger kids, three Audubon centers offer residential camps for teens and adults.
"Just being in nature, smelling the earth, feeling the textures of natural things, is something kids don't get many chances to do anymore, and it's so important for development," he says.
"So many children can easily name a hundred brands for commercial goods, but they can't name a hundred plants in their backyard. In a sense then, they are aliens in their own homes. Even their teachers often don't know an oak from a maple tree. So where are they going to learn all that if they don't go to nature camp?"
While most camps are geared toward elementary and middle-school-age children, some nature centers and botanic gardens now offer day camps for kids as young as 4, says Patricia Hulse, director of the Everett Children's Adventure Garden, part of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx.
Despite the garden's expanded number of day camps, registration generally fills up within about a month of opening. Experiences include climbing trees and wading into ponds.
At the Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, Maryland, camps include outdoor exploration, science and engineering experiments, art projects, stories, physical activities and puppet shows, says Sheryl Pedrick, education director at the gardens.
At the Audubon Center in Maitlin, Goldman says, "the kids take turns guiding us back to camp through the woods. We track animals, say a raccoon or a coyote. And when you see some coyote scat on the ground, the kids go wild. Then you mash it around a little and see berries, and maybe some fur, and the kids think about it and realize that means the animals are omnivores."
"I'm sometimes as blown away by the kids as they are by nature," he adds, describing a 10-year-old girl who once came to him with 10 snakes in each hand.
"She was a real biologist, full of passion and courage. She not only knew how to identify non-poisonous snakes, but she knew just where to find so many of them. And she learned those things by going to nature camp."
Some skills learned at nature camps can be life-saving, as well as life-changing.
"Knowing how to make pine needle soup, how to identify plants and animals with accuracy, could in some situations be crucial to survival," Goldman says. "Plus, learning about them is so much fun."