Living in Maine’s Beauty: Guiding Campers, Creating Environmental Stewards

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“Camps take place in beautiful natural areas. It’s one of the great treasures of camp.” Setting, however, is just the starting point for helping kids learn to love their environment, says Jessica Decke, summer camp director of Tanglewood 4-H Camp in Lincolnville. Decke and other camp directors agree that camp offers an ideal opportunity for youngsters to appreciate the natural world in the moment, and also develop a spirit of stewardship that can last a lifetime.

“Kids are really drawn in and really concerned by what’s happening to the planet,” says Garth Altenburg, director of Chewonki Camp for Boys in Wiscasset. Camp offers the chance for first-hand participation in taking care of that planet. “It applies to the majority of camps out there,” Altenburg says. “We’re living where we play, where we learn, where we go to camp. There’s a real opportunity for action.”

At Tanglewood, Decke says, staff is committed to teaching campers that they “are an interconnected part” of the world. Even the youngest campers – day campers as young as age four – the lessons taught are about seeing “beyond our own selves.” From the outset, Decke says, Tanglewood strives to help kids develop a sense of connection. That may be noticing the stars in a dark night sky, to be sure, but it is also “what it means to be part of a community.”

Across its curriculum – from watershed ecology to creative arts – Tanglewood seeks to teach youngsters “that they need to be cognizant of their actions and choices,” Decke says. “When you build a connection to place, you care more about that place,” Decke says. For a camper, “it’s not just me having a personal experience, it’s me having the experience with this group of kids.”

Shared experience in nature is a cornerstone of the camp experience. At Chewonki, Altenburg says, that experience may include a farm dinner that includes herbs and vegetables just picked from the garden. It often means boys volunteering to rise with the sun to do farm chores. The camp’s gardening activity has been a top choice for campers in recent years, Altenburg says. “I think it’s because it’s so different from anything they encounter in their home lives. There’s something about kids not having many opportunities to do meaningful labor.” Campers’ connection to the environment is reinforced by returning to camp year after year, Altenburg says, but boys also carry inspiration back home. Chewonki campers have undertaken initiatives in their schools, and some have ultimately pursued careers in conservation. “That mindset became real at camp. They were able to practice it at camp, and were able to do something at camp.”

Kirstie Truluck, director of Wavus Camp for Girls in Jefferson, says camp develops “an appreciation for the curative, healing capacity of open space, fresh air, dark skies.” Wavus, a wilderness tripping camp at which girls take increasingly longer trips as they get older, also gives its campers the opportunity for long periods of conversation and reflection, Truluck says. “When [a camper] recognizes the value of open, wild space, she understands it’s her obligation and duty to preserve that for the next generation. She recognizes that on a very human, emotional level,” Truluck says. Wavus also has educational components aimed toward developing stewardship. This summer the camp helped pilot a “Leave No Trace” curriculum. Gardening at camp helps teach kids that: “This is food, this is where it comes from, this is how you can prepare it so it tastes really good,” says Truluck. Even the youngest campers, who take an overnight trip to Hog Island, learn about saltwater ecology and other environmental lessons.

During a recent trip to Connecticut to meet potential campers, Altenburg says a current Chewonki parent said, “My boys came home loving salad.”  “My theory is that the reason they love the salad is that they’re picking the lettuce, and working the garden. By getting their hands in the dirt and harvesting the farm, they are really connecting” to the planet,” he says. “It’s making stewardship so real for them.”

And there is still time to be a kid. On summer nights at Chewonki, after some hard work in the garden, campers often come together. Munching on freshly pulled carrots, boys gather in the hayloft to hear a story. “They do some labor, work up a sweat, and unwind with a story,” Altenburg says. “You see something come over them.”

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