Why the Perfect Summer Camp May Be in Your Own Backyard

Linda Sharps wonders whether her kids will care more about the environment after attending an ecological summer camp.

(Photo: Oleh Slobodeniuk/Getty Images)

Apr 30, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Linda Sharps is a regular contributor to TakePart. She lives in Eugene, Oregon with her family, where she works as a freelance writer while wrangling two rambunctious boys and ignoring the laundry.

Until now, my main criteria for choosing a kids’ summer camp was expense. Well, expense and proximity to my house. OK, expense, convenience, and the complete and total absence of a certain Jason Voorhees, who drowned as a boy in Crystal Lake and came back as a hockey-mask-wearing slasher to stab his way through 12 terrible movies in the Friday the 13th franchise.

Summer camp isn’t a huge priority at our house: Our kids are still too young for overnight adventures, and whenever I look at the cost associated with camps with names like “Nature Fun Week!” I always end up thinking, Hey, you know where we have lots of nature for free? It’s called the backyard. Look, kids, the wily and exotic Sciurus griseus, also known as “That Damn Squirrel’s in the Bird Feeder Again.”

Still, I’d like to sign my boys up for one or two weeklong day camps this summer, if only because our hometown of Eugene, Ore., has so many to choose from. Crafting camps! Archery camps! Animal tracking camps! “Wizardry” camps! Camps that are titled, I am not making this up, “Fire, Fire, FIRE!” (I assume that one involves fire safety and campfire building, but perhaps it also covers the result of accidental wizard-related explosions.)

Until I started researching camps, it hadn’t occurred to me that in addition to finding something affordable, relatively close by, safe, engaging, well-reviewed among other parents, and staffed by qualified personnel, I should also be choosing the most eco-friendly camp option. Did you know there’s a growing trend of “green” camps for kids, with programs that delve into organic farming, conscious-living classes, green building, and alternative energy projects? For instance, at Camp Calleva’s sustainable farm in Maryland, attendees have spent their time building a rainwater collection system for crops and farm animals, a biofuel project, and a windmill alternative energy design.

That’s…impressive. I think I remember stringing some beads on a string when I went to summer camp.

Even if you can’t find a camp specifically devoted to teaching kids about sustainable living, there’s all kinds of advice out there on how to make the most environmentally friendly camp choice. You can ask if the projects will be made from recycled goods; you can pack no-waste lunches; you can make it a priority to find a camp within biking distance.

I don’t think it’s mission-critical to find the greenest camp solution possible, though. I mean, it’s great that more camps specifically teach eco-awareness through the thoughtful classes they catalog with soy ink on recycled paper each year, but research shows that if you want kids to grow into environmentally responsible citizens, there’s one important thing you can do right now: Send them outside.

Seriously. A Cornell University study found that camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing, and hunting were the activities most likely to teach children to actively care about the environment. In fact, this sort of unstructured play was far more beneficial than educational programs designed to teach kids about green living:

“Participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood,” [study coauthor Nancy] Wells said....“Participating in nature-related activities that are mandatory evidently do not have the same effects as free play in nature, which don’t have demands or distractions posed by others and may be particularly critical in influencing long-term environmentalism,” Wells said.

This leads me nicely back to my original plan for keeping the kids occupied during the summer, which was mostly centered on dropkicking them (lovingly!) out the back door. Not that our suburban yard is a wooded paradise teeming with salmon and deer, but it offers plenty of opportunity for free play. Also, we tend to make the most of the non-rainy months here in Oregon by spending time in the great outdoors as a family, with lots of hikes and camping trips scheduled throughout the summer.

The bottom line about summer camp, as far as I’m concerned, is that whatever helps kids connect with nature is a good thing. Camps that boast solar power, green architecture, sustainable farms, and organic gardens are a great option—but anything that encourages kids to have fun outdoors (and away from those tempting electronic distractions) is a worthy endeavor. Even if that something is as simple as saying those four little words we parents remember from our own childhood: “Go outside and play.”