Back to Nature: A Summer Camp Experience for Children

Reader Contribution by Crystal Stevens
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Last week I taught at a children’s summer camp program called Back to Nature at the nearby Montessori school. The following is a daily curriculum journal of the program that can be used as a resource for nature-based activities and lessons for children. 

Day 1

We started the morning with several questions:

  • Why do we need the earth?
  • What is an earth steward?
  • Why is it important to be a steward of the earth?
  • What is nature?
  • Are we a part of nature?
  • Why do we need nature?

After each child had a turn to answer the questions, each child created a nametag using recycled materials. I asked them to draw a plant, animal or insect on their nametag.

We then went outside for a web-of-life introduction with a ball of yarn. The plant, animal, or insect drawn on each child’s nametag represented living components in the food chain of the web of life. I held the end of the yarn and introduced myself and explained that I drew a dandelion plant on my nametag. I asked the class to think about which animal on the other children’s nametags would possibly eat a dandelion. After glancing around the circle, all the children shouted out, “A rabbit!”  Once the boy with the rabbit on his nametag agreed, I threw him the ball of yarn while still gripping on to the end. We created a food web by determining as a group who eats what. At the end of the introduction, all of the children knew each other’s names and whether they were a predator or prey. They each were holding onto the strand of yarn weaved together by the interrelationships between plants and animals.

We then trekked out to the garden that we planted during last year’s summer camp garden class. We hand-pulled the crab grass that was growing against the stones. We used a broad fork and a garden hoe to turn under the soil. I gave a tutorial about how to start your very own garden with just a little space and a few simple tools. I showed them how to use each tool efficiently and gave them each a few minutes with each tool in the 10-foot garden plot.  I asked one of the students to set his stop watch for 20 minutes. We had the soil turned under in 16 minutes.  We went in for a refreshing glass of fennel-and-basil-infused water. 

We talked about the wonders of the world and the importance of protecting the last remaining wild areas. We discussed deforestation, strip mining, mountain top removal, as well as air and water pollution. I gave the children several examples of how they can help by reducing their carbon footprint and by living by the daily principles of the 3 R’s. I showed them a brilliant documentary titled The Story of Stuff.

We then went for a nature walk and each child picked a dozen objects from nature. We brought them back to the classroom and identified a few from each child’s collection and they made nature collages. For a snack, I brought a large bowl of peas that we grew at La Vista Farm.

Day 2

We started the morning with a meditation.  We discussed the importance of being mindful of the stillness of nature and the beautiful sounds that can be found all around us. I was surprised to see how well the children responded to this exercise.  They were very respectful. I gave each of the children a turn to talk about their favorite experiences in nature.  They got to paint terra-cotta pots, play plant-identification games and journal under a shady tree. We discussed the importance of photosynthesis, cellular respiration and symbiotic relationships.  I was impressed that in a class of students ranging in age from 5-year-olds to 12-year-olds, every student knew what photosynthesis was. Each child gave a great example of a symbiotic relationship.  We talked about the parts of a plant and discussed plant families. I taught them about basic medicinal uses for plants as well as how food is used as medicine. We went for a nature scavenger hunt on the nearby college campus, which had a display of plants whose names were inspired by animal names, such as cockscomb, zebra grass and dragon wing begonia.  Identifying animal appearances with plant appearances was an intriguing way for the kids to learn basic plant identification.

Day 3

We jumped right into planting the garden on the last day. We set the stopwatch timer for 45 minutes. Each child took turns digging holes, placing plants in the ground, covering them with soil and watering.  Every child was engaged and felt a true sense of accomplishment when the garden was completely planted before the timer went off. 

Exhausted from planting, we took a break and made organic berry lemonade with berries I picked at the farm. We also made organic popsicles with juice and berries.  I brought a harvest basket full of produce and the children helped wash, prep, slice and shred the vegetables. The children got to make rainbow chard rolls filled with chopped vegetables, cheese and organic ranch dressing.  Ten out of 12 students cleared their plates. 

Day 4

I brought several trays of established seedlings for the children to transplant into pots and take home. Each
child got to transplant scallions into their painted pot, as well as each of the following into pots: black cherry tomatoes, purple peppers, okra, squash, basil and calendula.  They each got to choose five packets of seeds. They planted one of their seed packets in mini “greenhouses”— recycled plastic clamshell containers and plastic egg cartons filled with soil. We talked about the importance of pollinators and made bird feeders from pine cones.

The children cut more vegetables for a healthy snack and got to enjoy their homemade popsicles. 

The children collected their plants and crafts.  We ended the summer camp with a synopsis of what they learned: why the earth needs our help, the importance of nature, how we can do our part by reducing our carbon footprint and how to grow their own food. Children everywhere around the globe would benefit from being taught these fundamental concepts.  It is up to us to plant the seed of earth stewardship into future generations.

Photos by Crystal Stevens