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Maximize Your Environmental Education Program at Camp


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Apr 9, 2008, 2:55 PM

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by Ray Bivens

Through my travels, I encounter many nature-themed camps. They have names such as "Young Explorers," "Nature Nuts," and "Outdoor Adventurers." Sadly, I discover that nine times out of ten, these camps have no naturalist or professional outdoor educator on staff. No camp director would theme a camp around sailing without a trained sailing instructor, so why should nature camps be any different?

As a former program director myself, I realize what program directors face every day. It can seem like a hundred urgent matters occur each day, often at the same time. If you do not spend your week putting out one small brush fire after another, please give me a call; I want to know your secret. Unfortunately, environmental education at camp is often something that is easy to put on the back burner on your "things to do list" that you create each morning. Environmental education never seems to get the attention it deserves when you are dealing with a plumbing problem, preparing for the staff meeting, and trying to balance the budget.

You can give your environmental education program a face-lift. The first thing to do is to make a commitment to creating a properly staffed program by hiring a camp naturalist or outdoor educator. Develop a written job description, and advertise the position using "camp naturalist" or "outdoor educator" as the job title. If you advertise for a horseback riding instructor, you do not get lifeguards applying; the same rule applies here. Why should a naturalist apply to a camp that is only looking for camp counselors?

Finding Your Naturalist

Let's start with what not to look for in a camp naturalist or interpreter.

  1. You are not necessarily looking for an ornithologist. Just because he or she knows the mating call of the chestnut-sided warbler by heart does not mean he or she understands camp and campers. You need someone who can be part entertainer, part educator, and part famous TV naturalist Marty Stauffer, all in one.

  2. You are not looking for someone to run a nature center. It takes too much time and money to bring a nature center to life—leave that job to the pros at local parks and nonprofit groups like the National Audubon Society. You need someone who can make your camp property his or her living classroom.

  3. You are not looking for Freeman Tilden (aka: The Father of Interpretation). With the salary you are able to offer, you will not attract the world's elite naturalists. However, do not be afraid to emphasize the positives of your position: time off, free meals, free lodging, and a great chance to save money.
The Interview Process

Many camp directors would not know a fish hawk from an eagle but certainly want a naturalist who does. One easy, nonintimidating way to discover what a candidate knows is to give a short quiz. Visit, use downloaded photos of local trees and animals to create your own quiz, and then see how prospective camp naturalists score.

As part of the interview process, consider asking each applicant to come prepared with a ten-minute program to present. This technique is common in the field. Chances are that if you enjoy their teaching style, so will your campers. A warning concerning this practice: it can make phone interviews very difficult, but the good naturalists will still shine through.

Empowering Your Staff Member

Your outdoor education program is one that needs your support not only fiscally but also emotionally—and with your own sweat equity. Traditionally, naturalist positions attract individuals with personalities that thrive on daily feedback, and they are committed to their work so that they can share their love of the outdoors, not just receive a paycheck. Failing to set aside time to regularly attend programs or check in on a daily basis, will certainly alienate a camp naturalist much quicker than most other staff members. Traditionally, camp managers stay "out of the hair" of staff members who are doing a good job and watch from a distance. This is not a good management approach when working with an educator.

What Focus Will Your Environmental Education Program Take?

Try not to dictate to your camp naturalist specifically what subject matters he or she should teach—the educator needs some latitude for creativity. In addition, if your naturalist comes with a specialty in Herps (Reptiles and Amphibians), the last thing you want to do is force them to conduct lessons about marine biology all summer.

Ask for a written lesson plan in advance and provide input and ideas to help enrich the programs. Having a written lesson plan one week in advance allows the naturalist time to be creative but keeps him/her from procrastinating and using the "fly by the seat of my pants" planning method.

Retention of Good Staff

Turnover in the interpretive field is much higher than in traditional camp positions. Great camp directors will find a way to do the little things that make it easy for good staff to return. Here are a few ideas:

  • If a good staff member returns for a second season, offer to pay their way to an advanced training opportunity or conference. Leave No Trace Master Trainer workshops, Audubon workshops, or National Association of Interpretation workshops or conferences are all good choices. You might never see a dime of return on this investment, but it is certainly a risk worth taking. You could call it inducement, but most definitely, you could call it a good investment.

  • Instead of a pay raise, which you probably didn't budget for last winter, consider paying membership fees to a professional organization for your educator. If your educator is a full-time student and works at camp during the summer, he will be eligible for big discounts with many memberships, starting at twenty dollars.

  • Finding Your Camp's Niche in Environmental Education

    A variety of warbler species all feed from the same tree, yet none directly competes with others for food. Some only eat high in the branches while others only eat insects and not fruit and seeds. Much like the warblers' selective feeding niches, your camp's environmental education program should have its own niche.

    What Do You Want to Be Known For?
    It may be that you are thinking of developing a traveling high adventure camp with rappelling, windsurfing, and whitewater rafting for teens. But something as simple as an introduction to fishing camp, while not nearly as sexy as rock climbing, may be the right niche that is currently underserved and would be a good fit for your camp and available resources.

    There are many simple ideas that you and your camp naturalist can implement to help turn your camp into an environmental education experience. Since finances and the bottom line are always well . . . the bottom line, I suggest you start by maximizing your on-site assets. For example, most camps have canoes and kayaks for recreational purposes, but few use their homegrown assets to offer naturalist-guided canoe trips. Better yet, why not use your boats for a full moon canoe paddle for a select group of older, more mature campers? It may become a tradition that keeps campers coming back for years until it is their turn to participate.

    Another simple project for your camp naturalist before camp starts could be to identify all the species of trees around your cabins. Before you know it, you have your own camp arboretum and some simple scavenger hunt ideas. Always encourage your camp naturalist to select activities that are fun, and get campers to touch, feel, and do! Your program cannot be school or remind campers of school. Be careful of lectures, movies, and PowerPoint presentations— those tools have their place on rainy days, but when the weather cooperates, get the campers outside and moving. Help fight the youth epidemic known as "America's Nature-Deficit Disorder."

    Do Not Be Afraid to Look Outside Your Camp Gates

    In the off-season, get to know your local park and museum staff to see what they may have to offer. Many camps plan field trips to amusement parks paying $25-$30 per camper. For a camp of one hundred, $3,000 doesn't last long, plus amusement parks are tough places to manage a large group of campers. Kids do not come to camp to go to amusement parks. Leave those trips for families, and look for cheaper alternatives while not sacrificing on the fun factor.

    For the past four years, I have worked with Delaware State Parks. One of our gems is Fort Delaware State Park. The Fort, a former Civil War prison, is one of the largest fortifications of its time. Today the Fort is interpreted using the first-person living history format similar to what you find in Williamsburg. At the Fort, it is 1864 everyday. For a six-dollar fee, campers can take a ferryboat ride on the Delaware River, see the second-largest Civil War cannon ever fired, and learn how to cook and clean Civil War-style. In addition, campers can see the largest heron rookery outside of Florida, with thousands of herons, ibis, and egrets flying by all day. All this for only $6. Yet, last year fewer than ten camps visited the Fort all summer.

    The important lesson here is to find your own Fort Delaware. No matter where your camp is located, there are local treasures to be found. By finding your jewel of a site, you just saved $2,500 for your camp and think of all the great photo opportunities you have generated for next year's camp brochure.

    Supplemental Programming

    Supplemental programming is one area where you have to be extra fussy. If your camp has a line item in the budget for special programs, good for you; you are probably in the minority. You can go broke in a hurry paying outside companies to provide entertainment or programs on site for your campers. I encourage you to keep half of the programs you currently do each year that produce the best results and look to retool the other half. Here are some inexpensive or free program ideas you may not have tried; some may only require a donation.

  • Contact your local Fish and Wildlife or Natural Resources police. Many have search and rescue officers with dogs that provide very interesting special programs.

  • Invite the local forest ranger, fire company, or Smokey the Bear to your camp.

  • Find a local falconer willing to bring birds and present a flying demonstration at your camp.

  • Look for Civil War reenactors who may live in your area and ask them to share a short program and possibly a musketry demonstration.

  • Contact your local forests, parks, and museums to see if they conduct outreach programs.

  • Take Chances

    Probably the best advice I can give you is to be willing to take chances. If your camp naturalist approaches you and requests $2,000 to start up a camp digital photography program focused on nature appreciation, don't just say, "No, we can't afford it." Explore every option, take it to your next board meeting; this may be a great donor-supported project. Maybe approach your local electronics store. At the minimum, you may be able to get a 15%-20% discount, or they might just sell the cameras at cost in exchange for a small ad in your next camp brochure.

    We all know that where there is a will there is a way. Sometimes it just may take a little while until that way appears. You will look like a superstar camp director when you find a way to support the photography program, and next year you can save money on a professional photographer because every photo in your marketing materials were camper snapshots!

    Ray Bivens currently serves as the chief of interpretation and environmental education for the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation. Bivens has been employed in the camp profession for fourteen years in various positions. Bivens is also a canoe instructor trainer through the American Red Cross. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

    Originally published in the 2007 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

    This Camping Magazine article is reproduced with the permission of the American Camp Association.

    American Camp Association
    5000 State Road 67 North
    Martinsville, IN 46151-7902
    Map to ACA
    Phone: 765-342-8456
    Fax: 765-342-2065

    (This post was edited by ACACamps on Jun 2, 2008, 11:41 AM)


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