by Bryony Angell
When June arrives to Seattle, restless parents and school kids are one foot in the schoolroom and one foot out the door into the priceless three months of summer in the Pacific Northwest.
And at Seattle Audubon, the education staff are ramping up for the biggest educational program of the year, Nature Camp. Making the most of the Seattle summer, Nature Camp spans late June through early September, and features week-long sessions covering varied topics of experiential outdoor learning instilling an appreciation for nature among its school-age campers.
The History of Nature Camp
“Nature Camp has been around since 1982,” says Christine Scheele, Seattle Audubon’s Education Manager. Back then, the idea originated from the education committee, which suggested Seattle Audubon expand its all ages programming. Summer camp was a natural way to engage kids in the message of the organization, and thus Nature Camp was born.
“Camp initially met at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford and participants spent quite a bit of time taking field trips to Seattle parks,” says Scheele. Over the years, the programs have expanded and the camp has relocated to Magnuson Park.
Who are the instructors?
Each week-long camp session is led by a team of naturalists and on-site coordinators, in many cases, dedicated early childhood educators already involved in teaching careers, who have a passion for environmental education. “I have always loved exploring and learning more about nature, and I also love working with children. Nature camp was a place where I could combine my love of teaching with my passion for connecting kids with the Earth in fun and exciting ways,” says Elizabeth Sokol, 42, a former camp naturalist who works at the Valley School and now runs her own nature camp during the summer.
Chris Olsen, 27, another Nature Camp naturalist who worked two recent seasons of camps, now works as a curriculum specialist and environmental educator in early childhood education. The enthusiasm for the children they instruct and the subject matter is infectious both directions. “The nature camp kids--the ones who are so excited about nature in general--are so happy to be with adults who share their interest. It is fun to be with kids who are so invested,” says Olsen.
What does the curriculum look like?
Thus kids embark on a week-long session that might cover birds, the ocean, insects, wetlands, and other ecosystems, using games, art, team building activities, and play to make the connection to the natural world. Sessions typically run Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with options for childcare before and after. Each session includes two field trips to a park or natural area beyond Magnuson Park as part of the greater enrichment. Camper field groups are up to 12 kids, led by an adult naturalist and a teen junior naturalist (a high school student intern fulfilling his or her service learning volunteer hours); each week of camp has between three and five field groups.
Hanae Bettencourt, Seattle Audubon’s education associate and Nature Camp registrar, reflects on her 8 years with the organization and how camp has evolved further under her watch. “I’ve updated and improved the Nature Camp curriculum, focusing on paring down all of the lessons and activities to reflect the main learning objectives of each week. I’ve made sure that all of the lessons are adapted to reflect our camp audience as well as locations where they are taught.” She also improved the registration process for parents and made changes to the before and after care programs around camp hours.
And she recognizes that camp curriculum can still be dynamic from year to year. “I take pride in knowing how well-received it is throughout the community. (But) I am always looking for ways to improve and keep things interesting for our campers and their families who come back to participate in camp year after year.“ For instance, she might mix up the guest speakers and games each year to give returning campers novel experiences.
This awareness of the community being served reaps results. According to Scheele, about 50 percent of campers come back year after year. About 30 percent of campers attend for more than one week.
Both Olsen and Sokol emphasize age-appropriate learning within the curriculum. “Nothing sad before fourth grade!” says Olsen. ”It’s awareness and wonder at the earlier ages; the more urgent message of stewardship comes later.” Developmentally, younger kids aren’t ready for bad news. “But the older kids feel more empowered to do something,” says Sokol. Nature Camp provides the balance of reverence for and care of nature for kids ages 6 to 12, based on these principles.
What will kids take away from a summer at Nature Camp?
Sokol and Olsen and the other naturalists on the ground with the kids have the most to say regarding what campers might impart from their time in the field. “Many children came back year after year because they loved it so much,” says Sokol. “I think for most kids, their affection and respect for nature deepened in very profound ways. I am sure that many of them will go on to be great champions of the environment and I am looking forward to seeing what they will do with their passion and knowledge.”
“I run into kids out in the community afterwards and they still have that passion,” says Olsen. For some kids, Nature Camp becomes an annual tradition beyond being a camper--many of the junior naturalists and even some naturalists are former campers. Not a bad outcome for the humble summer camp experience.
There are still spaces available in some camp session for Summer 2017. For more information about Nature Camp, visit our FAQ page.
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