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.
A Spiritual Connection to the Environment
Bergstrom believes that the more young people discover their connection to land and place, the more they are awed by it. It is important for individuals to explore the natural world around their community so that they can make become its stewards. Childhood experiences in nature can later inform ethical positions about land use and creation care.
Erik Becker of Bushy Hill Nature Center in Ivoryton, Connecticut, speaks of "helping kids connect with our land" in their 700 acres of varied habitats. "Through knowing the land they come to know how they fit into the world around them - physically, emotionally, and spiritually." He adds that 700 acres is big enough to feel small in, but not big enough to get lost in. Children love naming places on the property, and are able to develop mental maps which help them feel safe while they are exploring. Children who come back season after season develop a strong sense of attachment to place.
Environmental Education Teaches Children To Care For The Earth
As Maggie Johnston points out, if you help children become aware of what's around them and help them to be comfortable about it, they are not just going to respect it but also want to protect it. She uses a model for educating children in nature that follows a pattern of awareness or appreciation, then knowledge, which leads to understanding, and then to responsibility.
Mindy Furrer's favorite part of teaching is what she calls "the light bulb moment," when children new to the program hike to the crest of the dune on the island and see the ocean for the first time. There are other enlightened moments, too, of which the most important may be when "kids recognize that they are smart in a different way from classroom smart." They learn to engage beyond awareness and awe to critical thinking and problem solving in the habitats they are exploring.
The Lifelong Impact of Environmental Education
Both Maggie Johnston and Eric Becker have noted that program participants often grow up to be program leaders. For Johnston it has been her greatest joy to nurture such young people. Becker says, "I feel like camp and outdoor education saved me as an adolescent from going down the wrong road, and I want to do that for other kids."
He underscores the importance of the themes of Last Child in the Woods and expresses a responsibility to use the land at Bushy Hill as "a classroom with the mission of helping kids participate in their own world.
Phina Borgeson covers the environment and science beat for Episcopal LIfe Media. She is an ordained deacon with decades of experience in religious education for all ages. She has also served as Faith Network Project coordinator for the National Center for Science Education, and currently chairs the Celebrating Creation Network in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, where she lives in Santa Rosa. Parts of this article previously appeared in Episcopal Life Monthly.