Down and Dirty Fun Versus Trail Tiptoeing

14 Jul

Dropped off my son at a Christian daycamp today. It’s by a large lake under tall evergreens–a lovely setting. I thought it would be great to have him receive some fun outdoor experiences in the context of community discipleship. The daycamp director, a cheerful and enthusiastic youth in his early twenties, explained the rules. He came to the issue of  “the creek, the one right there, that our camp is named after.” “It’s GROSS!” he declared. And went on to say that the campers definitely didn’t want to go down there–it was dirty, there were rats living down there, and something, possibly a chipmunk, living under the bridge. Oh yeah, I thought–this is not kids enjoying nature, it’s kids outside under trees so big and strong they can survive the onslaught of hundreds of stampeding feet a day five days a week all summer and then in after school programs. I wonder if any camp leader even mentions the trees. And, if the kids were caught carrying sticks over the bridge, it was a place to throw them away, as sticks weren’t allowed on the other side. At least Boy Scouts would have used the sticks for something.

The creek was running right between the “Corral,” where everyone met to play, and the benches, where we sat to hear the camp leaders speak. It didn’t look much like a creek–just a ditch with packed dirt banks. I wonder if the habitat restoration people knew how this creek was being treated. What did it look like when it was untouched? Would it have a chance to recover?

It reminded me of a Boy Scout ropes course I’d seen once. A great ropes course–built by scouts using the proper materials and techniques, fun, good for developing fitness, teamwork,and character. But it was completely bare of vegetation or any other living thing except for large evergreen trees.

This camp setting contrasts with the environment cultivated by what I will call an earth keeping approach. Earth keeping camps maintain trails and protect habitats as much as possible. They  hike on narrow, leafy trails lined with abundant flora and fauna. No one ever goes off the trail and tramples habitats, campers are encouraged to look and sometimes pick up, but not probe more deeply (squash and sniff, pull up and look at roots, try out uses), and definitely not take home. There are carefully designed activities to help campers notice more, learn ecological principles, and get in touch with their sense of wonder. And they may look at the negative impacts of human use and waste on natural environments. But although campers are encouraged to think of Earth as a beautiful home that we must take care of, they are not often reminded of our very real dependence on Earth’s bounty for food, building materials, and tools. If one approves of agriculture as a means of subsistence, one can add dependence on arable land. Earth keepers seldom talk about gathering food and materials from the land, and even less do they speak of hunting, fishing, and farming–except perhaps as things aboriginal people did.

When young Earth keepers get back home from camp, they may have a greater emotional attachment to the Earth and a commitment to living lightly on it. They may recycle more, avoid wasteful use of materials, and be more careful in their interactions with other living things. But they still may not know about wild foods, low impact building materials, gardening, and sources of local and sustainable goods. And they may have no idea how to have fun outside (without equipment)–to build a fort or shelter,  divert a brook with rocks, catch frogs.

I decided to do more observation when I returned to pick up my son. When I found him, I had to admit, he looked like a natural creature. He was with a group of other young children sliding down dirt tracks to the creek’s edge like so many river otters. Their backsides were covered with ground-in dirt, and they didn’t want to stop. Yes, the vegetation had mostly been killed and a few remaining ferns were being bent, but with all the huge trees shading the area and with all that human traffic, nothing much would have been able to live there anyway. My son told me they had built a fort out of sticks and even a rocket wouldn’t penetrate it. I decided that this having a good, rowdy, hands-on time was a good use of the land in this case. I’d still like to correct the daycamp director for his description of the creek, and offer some training on integrating some earth keeping attitudes into the camp. But I had to admit that this kind of good time was more likely to get these kids unplugged from their devices and out in the woods again sooner any tiptoe along the pristine habitat trail.


Posted by on July 14, 2012 in Education


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2 responses to “Down and Dirty Fun Versus Trail Tiptoeing

  1. Isaac

    August 19, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    I think there definitely needs to be a balance between appreciation and interaction that needs to be struck in order to fully engage kids with nature. The daycamp you described seems to be more of an exercise in outdoor crowd control, while I wonder if some young Earth keepers feel stifled from not being to fully use their tactile senses and imaginations to connect with nature. Orion magazine featured an article titled “Look, Don’t touch” by David Sobel that might be of interest to you:

  2. Gillian

    August 19, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Isaac. The daycamp I mentioned was not at all about appreciating or learning about nature–it was a Christian discipleship camp, good in many ways but based on activities such as crafts, songs, skits, swimming, and games, all in groups. It was wisely located in a beautiful forest by a lake, but that was all. I wish I could find more Christian programs for kids whose leadership had more than a cursory understanding of natural science and the need for children to connect with the non-human environment. After all the Bible teaches that one of the Creator’s main means of communication is the creation itself. Meanwhile I have tried to integrate my science and environmental education training with my faith in teaching my own kids and others as we homeschool and just do things together. That’s a tradition passed on by my parents.
    I did read the Orion article shortly after writing this post. I recognize the need to keep public nature spaces from being degraded, but I think if those of us who “own” patches of woods, shorelines and fields should make sure we regularly invite kids and other people for unstructured play–scouting, digging, building, collecting, catching and releasing wildlife, etc. We’ve done this in our woodlot, and it’s magical.


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