It's worrisome that American children are experiencing a “recess recession” at school and at home. Opportunities for connecting with Nature and being and playing outside have either dwindled or disappeared for many school-age children. Pediatricians are alarmed enough to write prescriptions for a special cure—Vitamin N (Nature). Doctors are actually requiring young patients to get a sustained dose of the outdoors as quickly as families are looking to fill these prescriptions. Did you know that attending a day or overnight camp happens to be a spectacular way to soak up Vitamin N and to get exactly what doctors are prescribing?
Read more about Vitamin N deficiency on the website of the Children & Nature Network, a world-wide movement co-founded by Richard Louv, whose pioneering work has inspired families, schools and society to save children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Louv's hypothesis: today's children experience a wide range of behavioral problems because they don't spend enough time outside. Pediatricians are now focusing on the profoundly negative effects of a nature deficit on child mental and physical health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics sees camp as “… an opportunity to overcome a lack of connection with the natural environment, which has been associated with depression, attention disorders, and obesity.”
Vitamin N is everywhere at camp.
Camps have a century and half of experience in adventuring, living, and being outside with children. Many different camp models exist today—there’s definitely a camp out there for every child—but all of them have some capacity for boosting Vitamin N. Even camps that rely on indoor facilities to allow campers to further special interests in the fine and performing arts or with computers and technology intentionally weave in program time to enjoy the out-of-doors: a hike, an active running game, and moving about the camp from activity to activity. Compared to the non-camp months, there’s a lot more outdoor walking to get where campers need to go—walking as a mode of transportation rather than walking for exercise: walking to meals from the cabin or building where they sleep, navigating the path down to the waterfront or pool and back, or hiking to a more remote part of the site. At camp, just traveling to an activity can provide a dose of Vitamin N.
Camp experiences build skills in all kinds of outdoor activities, pursuits, and sports.
Camps offer children opportunities to engage in outdoor-based pursuits in several significant ways: the chance to play without pressure, the chance to learn and practice skills, and the chance to compete—sometimes at an impressively high level—all in the out-of-doors. Sometimes the experience is highly organized and comes in the form of coaching and formal lessons in sports from English and Western riding to sailing, from team sports like lacrosse to personal ones like yoga, or from muscle-powered pursuits like hiking to mountain biking. Other times, what the camp provides is the inspiration and the opportunity, the equipment and the supervision--everything campers need to engage. You see, camps are worlds exclusively created for children. Camps work hard to encourage and influence children to be active; they set them up for success by providing activities to do, skilled staff members to teach, and the time and space to engage safely. Learning, practicing and playing actively in a camp setting is positively exhilarating!
Campers are active and outside for comparatively long stretches.
Camps also specialize in offering the chance to play—just play—in more informal ways. Camp staff lead noncompetitive games or activities where a small or large group has to cooperate to succeed. Parachute games and navigating elements of low and high ropes courses are a great example. Camp life lends itself to large group play. Counselors frequently send groups on a supervised quest of some sort, like a photo scavenger hunt where they find and photograph an entire list of items specific to the camp. Through their architecture, camps invite formal and informal play by strategically positioning playgrounds, tetherball and Gaga pits, and other equipment. At camp there’s always someone doing something; frequently that something is active and outside, from the first light of day to well after the sun sets. It might be something competitive. It might be something cooperative. It's likely to be something healthy and fun and nearly impossible to resist.
Camps encourage a personal connection with Nature—a lifelong gift.
Camps bestow another amazing gift—the chance to just be quiet outside: in awe of the setting sun, bathed by moonlight (a supermoon this summer), cooled by a gentle breeze, renewed by a dunk in cool water, satisfied after a mealtime, or amazed by a new creature like a loon or a salamander. The Great Outdoors provides an excellent backdrop and setting for having an important conversation or resolving a conflict too. It’s common to see campers and staff members sitting quietly outside while they plan, read, write, discuss, and collaborate. Camp life nurtures each child’s own relationship with the Earth. Environmental educators also play a key role in helping campers understand, appreciate and protect Nature. Interacting with the natural world at camp is calming and restorative for adults and children alike. It's difficult not to thrive while listening, touching, seeing, smelling, and even tasting the out-of-doors.
For all children, especially those lacking Vitamin N, a day or overnight camp experience can be a life-changing opportunity. Campers are certainly exposed to Vitamin N in healthy doses in ways that allow them to make up deficits, at least in part. They're also exposed to Vitamin N in ways that leave them wanting more, that lay the groundwork for the future. What will this summer's exposure to Vitamin N mean for the future--a young person who turns outside to play, to exercise, to think, to learn, and to have fun? Camps provide the chance to engage, practice and play in ways that will draw young people outside again and again and again for years to come.
Photo credit: Top left: ACA Accredited Camp Howe, Goshen. MA & lower right: ACA Accredited Camp Chewonki, Wiscasset, ME