Monday, May 25, 2009

Close Encounters, or Why Every Kid Needs Camp

I know a little girl, whom I'll call S.

S. is an insect whisperer.

S. is just finishing second grade. She goes to school near Houston's ship channel, a neighborhood surrounded by warehouses, silos, and parking lots for tractor trailers. The neighborhood is mostly Hispanic, and its population is shrinking, crowded out by industry. School is not really S.'s "thing", and she has to work hard at her studies. Nevertheless, she is fearless, possessing a deep understanding of the natural world - an understanding which extends to a sixth sense about how to approach wild things without scaring them off. Butterflies and "roly-polies" grow immobile and quiet as S. nears. The picture above shows S. as she has a close encounter with nature at Girl Scout camp this past weekend.

S. is one of the reasons all children need camp.

I worked at a summer camp (YMCA) for 8 summers - much longer than is reasonable for an adult person. I had an idea, at that time, that camp was really good and important for kids. After all, it had been for me. However, in the years since then, I've come to believe that camp, or something akin to it, should be an integral part of the educational experience of every child, particularly in an era when sustainability is crucial to our survival.

For S. and most of the kids who go to her school, "nature" consists of the school garden, chickens which roam the street around the school, and occasional field trips. At the school where I taught, nature was represented by the yearly termite swarm which drove my class out of the school, and the dead cockroach I nicknamed "Sketchy" (because it was sketchy that he lay in the school hallway for a week.) Now, let's face it, lack of access to the natural world is not only a problem of the inner city. A man-made lake in suburban Houston doesn't really count as "nature." However, as with many problems, income inequality compounds the issue.

Not only do kids like S. have few chances to encounter the natural world in their daily lives, but their families have few resources to provide such encounters. Camp (Girl Scout, Boy Scout, YMCA, YWCA, school-sponsored, church-sponsored ...) can provide those opportunities for kids - if we make a conscious effort to include kids like S.

So why does it matter?

Here are a few reasons why I think camp is as critical as school in fostering the next generation:

1) Camp, most obviously, gives kids opportunities to interact with the natural world. Now, we all know that kids don't get to go outside and play as often as they should -- and there are a number of reasons for this. Parents are afraid of the unknown, kids are hooked on video games, teachers give too much homework ... the list of targets for blame could go on and on. And while I don't go as far as to say that kids have "nature-deficit disorder", I do think that kids who don't get to experience the wilderness miss out on a vital connection with the world around them. If you've never seen a frog in the wilderness (or gone frog hunting at night, catching frogs and then letting them go), hearing about massive frog extinctions won't mean much to you. And if you've never seen the Milky Way glowing palely in the summer sky, it won't even register when you hear that light pollution has made it impossible for many Americans to see the stars. Kids who are going to be in charge of our sustainable future should have a good idea what they are sustaining.

2) Camp fosters innovation. At the camp where I worked for all those years, "building stuff" was a routine part of any week-long session. Inevitably, someone was going to take a bunch of 9-year-olds (boys or girls; it didn't matter - camp also fosters a relaxing of traditional gender roles, but that's a whole other blog) into the woods, and the group would find logs, branches, ground cover, and build a temporary shelter. Hiking around weeks later, one would find these abandoned palaces here and there, remnants of kids' ingenuity. Throughout the week, campers dressed in costumes, blazed trails, wrote songs, performed random acts of kindness, spoke like pirates, crawled on their bellies through grass pretending to be Scottish warriors, and created crop circles. Yes, their counselors had a lot to do with inspiring these bizarre behaviors. Kids, however, learned that their true selves might be a little different than what they had believed before. The future is going to demand innovative solutions to a host of problems that we have created. I want to live in the world where the engineers of tomorrow have built crazy shelters in the woods.

3) Camp bolsters independence. True story, the first time my parents dropped me off at camp, they had to leave me crying in the middle of the road, I so didn't want to go. But I had won a scholarship, and so I had to go. I wanted to be with my parents, where I knew what to expect. At camp, I had to make decisions. There, kids decide what activities to do, what songs to sing, what to wear in the morning, how long to brush their teeth, and if they're going to shower. They learn that attitude has an impact on the course of the day. And they have to get stuff done - set tables, sweep under bunks, clean up after themselves. Camp is a microcosm of society (albeit a society where you get to sing at the table and eat without silverware) in a way that school just isn't. School, in many ways (and I say this as an educator) is about learning to conform. Camp is about learning to take responsibility. We're going to need responsible, community-minded citizens to take charge and make the sacrifices that are going to be necessary in the coming decades.

4) Camp teaches whimsy. The other day I gave a friend a photo I'd had for many years. In it, he was dressed in a flowered muumuu and a broken sombrero, while beside him a girl frolicked in an orange drill team uniform and pink snow hat. Now. Ahem. Whatever was happening in that photo, which might have been conceptualized by Salvador Dali on crack, does not directly have any bearing on sustainability. However. I think whimsy is going to save us. Silliness is as sustaining as recycling. It builds connections between people and calls on brain cells we don't usually get to access. For this reason alone, every kid should get to go to camp.

So, what do we do?

Well, we can do stuff like giving our yearly charitable contributions to organizations which sponsor camp or wilderness experiences for low-income kids, voluneer with organizations such as Girl Scouts and YMCA, and fight legislation that would end summer break and extend the school year. And we can continue all of the sustainable practices we attempt to keep up day-to-day, in order to preserve the wilderness for the next generation.

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