A Field Guide to Preserving Childhood

Like everyone else, I keep reading the cascading articles predicting what we might need to trim from our budgets in the face of this recession. But I bristle when I see stories that suggest we tighten our belts when it comes to camp or another “gift of life” for our children. One thing I know for sure is the last place we would and should reduce our spending is on our children’s future. It’s easy for me to say since mine are grown; yet, as a professional who has personally seen the value of a camp experience be returned so many-fold, I would find a way, especially in these unstable times, to keep my child’s roots firmly in his/her summer home.

Camp is essential for all children; research continues to provide evidence that, of all the different youth development opportunities, camp should not be discretionary. Camp helps children develop critical skills, such as leadership, independence, decision-making, resilience, and the ability to make authentic human connections.

Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, talks about camp as “A Field Guide to Preserving Childhood” in today’s USA Today (March 10). She explains that “for generations, children grew up outside. They walked to school, rode their bikes, and walked barefoot through the grass. Childhood was characterized by innocence, imagination, wonder, and laughter.” And then she points out that, according to a study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, today’s children spend over five hours each day plugged in to some kind of electronic medium. Not only that, the media tells them they should be afraid to go outdoors and that they should be wary of others.

Camp is a powerful learning laboratory – safe, collaborative, empathic, meaningful, supportive environments, created exclusively for children to practice growing up. There they learn to connect with nature, with others, and with themselves. There is no substitute for play as the vehicle for learning; there is no way to circumvent nature without stifling one’s ability to understand his or her place in the universe, not to mention the preservation of our natural world.

I can’t help but think that camp directors have always been adaptable to the needs of a changing society. So, if you need to, partner with your child’s camp director to ensure that the predictability and routine of summer can remain constant, especially in these turbulent times. As Peg reminds us, “Nature and play go hand in hand and, together, they have a profound impact on the health and development of children.”

Fred Rogers of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood used to say, “Play is the work of childhood.” And connection to nature frees a child to explore and to discover the world around him, to invent and even re-invent himself.

A great story that depicts the power and wonder and beauty of nature is “First Snow in the Woods” by Carl Sams. The photographs illustrate the rituals and preparations of the animals in the forest for the first snow of the winter. Recounted from the viewpoints of the deer and fawn, the change of seasons unfolds vibrantly before the readers’ eyes, underscoring the importance of seamless and bountiful connections with the outside world.

Anyone who has witnessed the magic of the forest or has felt the magical influence of the camp environment knows that we have advocate in every way possible to preserve these experiences for our children.

Ironically, just as I am completing this post, I am hearing also of the President’s promotion to lengthen the school year/day. This is not about politics but about preserving childhood. To him, and to others who might not recognize the immeasurable value of the camp experience, I confidently assert:

Camp is not a privilege but a prerequisite for success. As Peg reminds us, “A child without the benefit of nature risks failure to thrive,” not as an infant but as an adolescent.

Tuck-in Tips

  • Can YOU tell the story by looking at the pictures about how the animals get ready for the winter?
  • What are some changes that happen with people when the seasons change?
  • Which animal do you think loves winter most? Least? Why?