Nature's stewards

Environmental education is more than a walk in the woods
November 17, 2008

Episcopal youngsters have enjoyed summer camp for generations, but over the last few decades more and more facilities have opened their doors year 'round for environmental-education programs.


Such programs offered during the school year strengthen stewardship in two ways. "We use our facility fully, all but about six to eight weeks a year," noted Maggie Wade Johnston, director of the Environmental Center at Camp McDowell in the Diocese of Alabama. "We are also making a difference among the 6,000 schoolchildren in Alabama and Mississippi who participate in our center's programs each year. Through increased awareness here, they are learning to respect and protect nature."

That sentiment echoes not just in the deep sandstone canyons of northern Alabama, but also at 11 Episcopal venues around the United States, from the varied niches of Connecticut's ponds and woodlands and North Carolina's barrier islands to Texas' piney woods and California's valleys and mountains.

"It's been a natural fit, pardon the pun, for Episcopal camps to connect with the development of environmental-education programs in schools," said Bill Slocumb, director of member services for Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers. "We have places with a history of getting kids and adults into nature, and a place is what many schools needed to implement their curriculum goals."

An unfamiliar experience
Increasing numbers of children have little direct experience of nature, program directors noted.

"It's appalling the change in children and how unaccustomed they are to being outside other than in their tiny yards, at the mall or in the schoolyard," said Peter Bergstrom, director of Camp Stevens in Julian, Calif.

Mindy Furrer, who directs the Sound to Sea Program at Trinity Center in the Diocese of East Carolina, agreed. "Many who come to our program are from the urban centers of Raleigh and Charlotte and arrive not wanting to sit on the ground or get dirty. Not only are they not exposed to nature, they are fearful of it."

The most rewarding aspect of her work, she added, is what she and her staff have named the "light-bulb moment," when students cross the island and see the ocean for the first time.

A strength of the Bushy Hill program of Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Conn., is working with children over time in the same place, said Director Erik Becker. They come to identify with the place, have a mental map of landmarks and feel safe exploring it, he said.

Adults, too, are increasingly isolated from nature in their daily lives, Johnston said, with many going from working inside to their cars to being inside at home. A byproduct of reaching schoolchildren is reaching the teachers, parents and chaperones who accompany them, she said.

Becker said he had received requests for a parents' week at Bushy Hill.

Multiple lessons
While reconnecting people with creation is a key goal of environmental education, programs teach other lessons as well.

The Gina's Orchard program at Bishop's Ranch, a camp and retreat center of the Diocese of California in Healdsburg, is ideal for teaching the science of water because the Turtle Creek running through their property is such a clearly defined watershed, said Program Director Jack Dowling.

The environmental center at Camp McDowell offers a full menu of programs cued to state education standards and from which teachers can select grade-appropriate modules for a week or half-week program.

"Place-based education," as such programs sometimes are called, offers opportunities not just for hands-on learning in biology and geology, but also for cultural history encompassing indigenous peoples as well as current events and for students to improve writing, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Camp Stevens encourages kids to ask questions to compare what they've learned from working in the organic garden and exploring the 250 forested acres. At the Bushy Hill program, within 700 acres, students have an opportunity to contrast the living communities of ponds, a lake, an Atlantic cedar swamp and pine and deciduous woodlands.

Sound to Sea's staff includes an extra instructor, providing time for dreaming up new learning projects, Furrer said. Two years ago, for example, a staff member suggested painting a mural of local fauna in the tunnel that runs from ocean beach to sound.

Underlying theology
While most programs are not explicitly religious, Christian motivations underlie them.

"We have the blessing of this property, and we want to be good stewards of it," Dowling said of the 340 acres at Bishop's Ranch and the conservation easement, Gina's Orchard, adjoining it.

Likewise, stewardship of the environment is key for her program, said Candy Moore, director of the Discovery program at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas.

"It's clearly a calling to be an environmental activist and educator," said Johnston of Camp McDowell.

Commented Becker, "I always quote St. Francis: 'Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.'" Bergstrom pointed out the importance of helping students see that they are a part of nature, not separate from it. "The more you discover your connection, the more you are awed by it and aware of the Creator."

Just as traditions of church summer camping live generation to generation, so do the effects of environmental education. "Camping and outdoor education saved me as an adolescent from going down the wrong road," said Becker, "and I want to do that for others."

"After I'd been director of our Environmental Center for several years," Johnston reflected, "I thought, 'What would make my life truly wonderful is to be able to hire staff that have come through the program. I've now had five staff members who came here as students during junior high and later, after college, came here to work."