Naturalists tout benefits of nature camps

By: Kristyne E. Demske, Cari DeLamielleure-Scott | C&G Newspapers | Published May 11, 2016

 Hodges talks about Michigan wildlife to a group of campers in 2014.

Hodges talks about Michigan wildlife to a group of campers in 2014.

File photo by Deb Jacques

METRO DETROIT — The average child in the U.S. spends seven hours a day in front of a screen.

This excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So what can you, as a parent or caregiver, do to help minimize your child’s screen time during those school-free months? One option, local experts say, is to have them explore nature. 

Nature camps offer a variety of benefits, including brain, health and social developments, according to West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Commission naturalist Lauren Azoury. Kids who attend outdoor-based camps tend to have higher test scores than those who don’t have unstructured outdoor time, she said.

In addition to the boost of Vitamin D — which promotes calcium absorption in the gut and is needed for bone growth — from sun exposure, the time outdoors has also shown to help reduce ADHD and teach kids about conflict resolution, Azoury said. 

“Camp counselors that are outside more often let the kids try to problem solve on their own instead of stepping in. ... If you’re in a classroom setting — a more structured setting — teachers and counselors step in quicker to resolve conflict,” Azoury said. “Camps are a great place to learn that kind of skill.” 

The key to outdoor play is the unstructured time, and Azoury said nature camps take that time into account. 

While hiking, for example, if kids find an intriguing insect, despite the teaching topic, Azoury said she will drop what she’s doing and talk about what caught the kids’ eyes. Because there are a lot of “good” distractions outdoors, kids are able to explore and hypothesize, she said. 

“One of the reasons I do what I do for a living is because we need kids to learn and appreciate nature,” Azoury said. “You have to teach them to appreciate (nature) and enjoy it so they want to help protect it and save it. 

“If they don’t get to go out and play in it, they don’t care to protect it.”

The West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation Commission offers a nature camp for preschoolers. Wee-Wilderness Explores is not only an introduction to camp for those who have not attended before, but a stepping stone to creating future stewards of the Earth, Azoury said. From her experience, older kids who have a passion for nature and help teach the camps are typically the kids who went to camp at a young age. 

“The fear factor is not there. As they get older, if they haven’t been exposed to the outdoors, they’re a little more leery to put their hands in the dirt,” Azoury said. 

While not all of the camps are specifically about nature at the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center in Shelby Township, all activities have applications in or elements of nature built in. With some summer day camp programs built around archery and crafts, children get to use natural products in their creations and get outdoors for the activities, said Dan Farmer, the naturalist at the center. 

Other camps focus completely on nature, however, and include offerings for even the littlest campers to get in on the fun. The “Littles” camp for preschoolers includes nature walks, live animals, hands-on experiences, stories, animal puppets and more, with themes that support science concepts and allow the children to have fun and use their imagination.

For school-age students, many camps get them outside identifying animals, birds and bugs. Students in some camps can even take what they have learned back to the classroom, Farmer said.

“Kids in school often participate in Science Olympiad, (which) does bugs. My camp is one of the more in-depth camps in Michigan on insects for that (elementary) grade range,” he said. 

Children are amazed by the creations found in nature, he said, like a group of preschoolers who he recently introduced to some yellow ants, at least three species of which are found in Michigan.

“If you kind of shake them up a little bit (in a bag), if you sniff that bag, it smells like lemon, and I did that with kids today,” he said during an April interview. “I make it simple and I make it fun, and I really project the idea that they can do it. That’s why our camps are good — because of our experience and our approach.”

Two skills camps get children ready to explore the great outdoors safely, with help identifying poison ivy, which animals are truly dangerous and which just look dangerous, how to shoot a BB gun, campfire-starting skills and hiking experience.

During a camp on outdoor skills and encountering wildlife, children sit in a blind in full view of the nature center and quietly record the wildlife they see at the bait pile.

Farmer said the children often see chipmunks — who love free food, he said — but have also seen turkey, deer and other animals wander into their sightlines.

“It’s really rewarding. It’s peaceful, it’s challenging, it’s fun,” said Farmer, a naturalist with 38 years of experience. “Our camps possibly do more real-life basic things than most camps.

“It’s really not a mystery how to do this. You find things that are fun for both the teacher and the kids.”

With so much of the world focused on virtual experiences, Farmer said it’s good for kids to get outdoors and have real experiences, although he said computers have their places too, in helping the children learn more about what they’ve discovered outside.

“When we see young people who want to help, sometimes they have not had much of an opportunity to do real-life, hands-on things,” he said. “Kids today don’t know how to do those things because they’re not asked to.”

For more information on the Burgess-Shadbush Nature Center, located at 4101 River Bends Drive in Shelby Township, call (586) 323-2478 or email naturecenter@shelbytwp.org.

For more information about West Bloomfield Parks and Recreation’s nature camps, visit www.westbloomfieldparks.org.