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Environmental Education Programs Help Kids Connect to the Earth

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

When I began my career in professional ministry I directed the program at a church summer camp, Camp Galilee on Lake Tahoe. One of the things I valued most was the opportunity the camp experience offered to children for outdoor play, hiking, and connecting with nature. Consciousness of environmental issues was only in the background back then, but engagement with the environment was everywhere. At that time, most children got to experience the outdoors. Now, as part of the grandparent generation, I find it hard to believe how little time today's children spend playing outside.

To understand better what is happening with today's younger generation, I interviewed prominent leaders in the field of environmental education. I learned that many adults feel there has been a large decline of appreciation for nature in recent years, but environmental education programs can encourage a connection to the Earth.

Peter Bergstrom has over 30 years experience in church camping and outdoor education, and also heads Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers. He states that "it's appalling, the change in children, and how unaccustomed they are to being outside other than in their tiny backyards, at the mall, or in the school yard." He adds that "it's more important now than ever to get kids in contact with creation." 

His opinion is echoed by Maggie Johnston, director of the Environmental Center at Camp McDowell in Alabama, who notes that so many of the children and adults who come to her program "are isolated from nature as they go from work or school inside to being inside at home."

You Are A Part Of Nature

Bergstrom points out that getting into contact with Creation is "fundamental to discovering who you really are, that you are not a person apart from nature, but a part of nature."  This, he adds, is "the first step in learning to care for [nature], including other humans."

Mindy Furrer, the director of the Sound to Sea Program on North Carolina's coast, has observed that urban children who come to her program resist sitting on the ground or getting dirty. "Not only are they not exposed to nature, they are fearful of it."

These directors and their programs are part of a movement of church camps and conference centers to offer not only summer programs but environmental education programs during the academic year for groups from public schools, private schools, and home schooling networks.  

What is Environmental Education?

Environmental education programs are a way to extend the use of summer camp facilities throughout the year. Though explicit religious messages are not a part of the work with public school groups, experience with nature in an environment with a history of valuing spirituality seems to allow children to make the integrating connections that are at the heart of a growing sense of self and other. Children experience nature in these settings as more than an outdoor science lab.  

Bergstrom is the director of Camp Stevens in San Diego County, California. Camp Stevens boasts an organic garden and composting system, as well as forested land. When youngsters compare what they learn in the garden with what they learn in the forest, noting the impacts of human intervention in natural systems, they develop an even stronger sense of what is helpful and what is harmful, and are prepared to weigh in on the helpful side. 

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