Summer camp and Environmental Education.
The break down of a two week summer camp in ecological exploration, urban environmental education and an article by David Sobel8/5/12
I started my two one-week camps with a great in-depth itinerary; broken down hour by hour with projects for exploring ecology. We were going to be outside for all of it, but most of it could be done inside if the weather got stormy. I spent two days finding and buying materials for all of these projects we were going to do. We were going to have at least one art project each day and we were going to make and fill out nature journals. We were going to create examples of what we saw or could see outside to look at bigger issues of water flow and habitats and niches. Lunch, snack, bathroom breaks were all planned in - okay not bathroom breaks, but transitions were planned.
The reality was nothing close to what I had planned. Each week went differently, even though both had the same plan, and both weeks did not follow the plan at all. They became authentic.
I had a theme for each day and correlating activities for those themes, water ecology, habitats, sensory awareness, etc. I still started each day with those intentions, but would really only keep to the theme specifically for the first hour if I was “lucky”.
What did happen was organic play. Free play. We played! We explored. We were able to be kids outside on hot summer days in the woods. These kids were rising 5th to 8th graders, very interested in socializing and in figuring out where one stands in a social group, while at the same time not wanting to let go of imaginary play. True play. Stuck somewhere between the ages of 8 and 18. What a tough period of life!
We would go for walks in the meadow at school looking to match paint chip colors with natural objects. Tough when you get “paradise blue” - but look that blue dragon fly is almost the same color! In order to find these colors you have to go off the path, you have to walk and explore in the tall grasses and bushes on the perimeter of the meadow. Everyone was surprised when they could find these colors AND how many different colors and shades are out there. Its not just green and brown, plants, birds and insects truly make a rainbow. Later in the week the kids would show me more colors, even though we weren’t playing that game any more. They saw the out-of-doors with a new colorful lens.
From that activity we head off into the woods to explore without our eyes. We had to get on the bus to go to a local park for the woods, but there we went on blindfold walks, using a rope as a guide. Or we would lead each other to trees that we then had to find again with our eyes open. We explored the dips and crevices with our feet, we noticed how a slight decline can feel scary and unnerving when walking on it without sight. With sight we might not have noticed that the decline even existed. Again, this entire process can only happen if you leave the trail. You have to walk through the low branches of the Beech trees and look out for the hairy arms of Poison Ivy. You still have to navigate some poop mines from the local dog walkers that don’t pick up after their dogs. The kids laugh and stretch their comfort zones and explore!
We will create art in the manor of Andy Goldsworthy. A sculpture built without tools that will stay where it was built. We will take pictures to show that we made it to those who are not with us, to show our parents, but the only other people who will see them are those who are willing to leave the trail. In the case of both groups we built in the stream. We could use rocks and mud and leaves and they could get their feet wet. They wanted to go in the stream to build, they wanted to come back the next day to see if their art was still standing or if anyone had moved into the structures. They wanted to explore and think critically, they problem solved, they used the scenery awareness from earlier in the day to create. They wanted and did these without knowing it!
vernal pool that was dried out and say we can’t walk there, but lets look at its edges. The campers would identify Poison Ivy and say that is a bad place to hide or make a fort and continue down the trail to a better place. They would not pick the flowers but would sit and watch the pollinators at work. I would give them colored pencils and water color to paint what they saw. These kids, who were so wrapped up in each other, were able to sit for 45 minutes and draw / paint and watch all the action around them. I had only planned 15-20 minutes.
Each day we ended with a species list. I only would give them the names of a few trees, flowers, and birds. I did not care if they retained them or not, but some people need names to form a connection. I wanted them to have an appreciation. By making the list it was a way to process the day's activities and adventures. By the end of the week they could see even though we live in the city we have much nature around us. They also started to process that while they were playing they were learning.
I have been processing how I felt about my itinerary falling to the wayside and decided that I am quite okay with that. I feel that these kids got much more out of the organic days.
I have often thought about what Environmental Education actually is. I spent two years hyper-focussing on it as a student at Antioch University New England, I think that different age groups need different experiences in and with nature. David Sobel - one of my professors in college - wrote a recent piece in Orion Magazine about how Environmental Educators might have it wrong. We preach preservationism and have given our younger generations heart burn with the stress of saving the world - a world they have not been allowed to explore. This last sentence is my version of his article.
I feel like what I initially planned for camp is more like the Environmental Education that is popular in nature centers and the like, but what I ended up teaching is a hybrid. The kids explored with their whole bodies but there were some limits. Those limits were mostly based on safety for them and the habitats, but the limits were explained and like one would do with a baby crying I gave them another option to explore than the one I found invasive or unsafe. I have two examples of this: first, a student wanted to walk across a log that had fallen over the creek. Both sides of the creek were really undercut and eroded, the log was also small and decaying quickly. I showed him how soft the log was and suggested he play on the one further down that was much larger and more solid. When he did move to that log I spotted him, but never told him it was unsafe just showed him how to pick a better log. Second, when the kids were looking for colors I asked them not to pick the objects, but bring me to them, we didn’t want to pick because the insects, plants and animals needed them. The bees needed the flowers that were there. If we really needed to pull things up, we could pull up the non-native invasives. There presented the opportunity to teach about invasives, as well as explore the different habitats and the kids could have the action of pulling things out. In the urban environment we are in no shortage of invasive species.
Sobel’s article was timely, I had already been processing my two weeks, and then his article was brought to my attention. I feel even better now about the outcome of camp. In fact I would say it was a success!