Earth Focus Day Camp: Nurturing a Love of Nature

Children on a GPS excursion at Earth Focus Day Camp

Children on a GPS excursion at Earth Focus Day Camp

Almost anyone who spent countless hours of summertime outdoors as a child has fond memories of exploration, investigation, discovery, and exhilaration. These are experiences the Arboretum’s Earth Focus Day Camp (EFDC) has provided for decades. In early August, when another summer of camp programs comes to a close, 146 campers aged 3–14 will have attended 11 camps over 9 weeks, staffed by 9 seasoned naturalists and 8 volunteer naturalist assistants, including 3 who had been campers when they were younger.

Johnathan, age 15, first-year volunteer naturalist assistant: “I took camp when I was going into grades 6, 7, and 8. I really enjoyed exploring the prairie, pond, forest and savanna. I’m helping with two camps. As a counselor, I like being able to give back to some of what I got being here as a camper. I also want to help other kids get the same great experience that I did.”

Programs revolve around the rich educational opportunities offered by our restored prairies, forests, and wetlands, our native plant and horticultural gardens, and our dedication to fostering the land ethic. This summer, campers have learned about ecology, a range of habitats, animals and plants, mapping, art, and more. They watched and listened for birds, insects, and other animals; learned to identify plants; fended off mosquitos; puddle-jumped; enjoyed books read aloud; played games; looked for frogs, toads, and turtles in the pond; drew pictures of what they observed and made art projects with natural materials; and learned why “scary” animals like bees and snakes are important—and don’t have to be scary. During the ever-popular outdoor free play, campers cooperatively built structures with natural materials, excitedly shared discoveries, and clambered on rocks and logs.

Tula, age 6: “We counted 7 big bunnies and 6 babies. I really like the baby birds and there was a 13-striped chipmunk. I liked meeting the teachers—they were fun.”

EFDC was started in 1992, but has deep roots in the Arboretum’s environmental education programs founded in the 1960s by Jim Zimmerman and Rosemary Fleming. The importance of children experiencing nature is one of our program’s foundational ideas. As Richard Louv says in Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” And a great deal of research shows that outdoor play and learning increase health and well-being, encourage problem-solving and creativity, and ease stress and anxiety. In addition, as an education and research unit of the UW–Madison, we also think it is important to foster curiosity and interest in science starting at a young age.

Overheard between two campers:
Q: “Do you want to go the muddy way or the not muddy way?”
A: “The muddy way is good.”

Although we’ve offered summer day camps for 26 years, every year brings something new. Even as this year’s summer camp season is ending, Jennifer Mitchell, camp director, is beginning to plan for next year’s camps. We evaluate the current year based on parent and child feedback as well as staff notes and observations. We consider incorporating new ideas in environmental education and topics of Arboretum research, and look at opportunities for community collaborations. The energy and enthusiasm of the campers is always an indicator of success.

From a parent: “He just loves being out in nature and exploring and learning. The navigation skills added a fun spin to this. He also loved his reward—the nature cards—and was impressed that they were all native species.”

Here is a sampling of camps and activities:

In Learning Together, preschool children with their caregivers played games, read books aloud, and enjoyed learning activities about pond animals, owls, butterflies, and squirrels.

From a parent: “We fully enjoyed all parts. Especially loved the owl/mice hide-and-seek games and the take-home decorated mask.”

Explorers (entering grades 1–5) session 1 learned all about insects and amphibians in the pond, birds, pollinators and garden habitat, animal relationships, and decomposers—organisms that break down organic material.

Explorers session 2 practiced GPS skills, learned to read and draw their own maps and mazes, discovered Arboretum landmarks, and created scavenger hunts for their fellow campers.

Ruby, age 10: “We used a phone that’s not a phone . . . a GPS for the scavenger hunt. There were marked areas to show the hidden wildlife cards. My favorite was the grey wolf.”

Eco-Trekkers (entering grades 6–8) met with Arboretum and UW scientists to learn about jumping worms, frogs and toads, and coyotes and foxes, and they lent a hand doing some ecological restoration with our staff.

Outdoor learning continues year-round at the Arboretum, offering regular opportunities for children and families to explore and discover nature. Take advantage of monthly family walks and nature programs. Children also come on group tours with schools, scouts, or other groups. And you can always bring your EFDC camper for a visit and ask them to lead you on a hike and tell you about all their discoveries.