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Bringing environmental education down to earth.

As a profession, we in the camp field acknowledge the importance of environmental ethics, but in many respects we have not given this aspect of our programs the standing it deserves. Many of our camp programs treat environmental issues as incidental to the primary purpose of the program, just as many environmental education programs treat recreational skills as incidental to the education of the students.

The distinctness of the two professions -- camping, with its emphasis on skills for the outdoors, and environmental education, with its emphasis on knowledge of the outdoors -- sometimes makes it difficult for us to bridge the gap between them effectively. To do so, we need to recognize that the ethical application of skills in the camp environment is as basic to our programs as are the skills themselves.

Environmental literacy -- an understanding of and appreciation for the interrelationships that exist in the environment and between humans and the environment -- is generally accepted as a basic goal of environmental education. We can recognize it as a basic goal in our camp programs, too, and still maintain the focus on recreation that makes us distinct from environmental educators.

To begin, we need to incorporate objectives related to environmental education into our camp program from the beginning of the planning process. This planning will help to justify the effort, staff time, and money we commit to these outcomes, and it will help us view the "basics" in our profession as being more than a collection of camp skills.

From a practical perspective, we can incorporate ethical considerations into our programs because we have our participants' attention. Camp programs offer an effective learning opportunity, and they do have major impacts on participants' lives. As people concerned about the natural environment, we should take advantage of this opportunity by incorporating an ethical component or environmental context into our camps.

Steps for Action

Creating and defining an environmental ethic is a complex process (Shrader-Frechette, 1987); we can't hope to "teach ethics" overnight. There are, however, a number of steps we can take to incorporate environmental learning into our camp programs.

A Philosophy of Environmental Harmony

A philosophy of operation that is respectful of the environment is essential if we hope to instill in our campers a sense of concern for the natural environment. For example, if our camps do not practice the "3Rs" (reduce, reuse, recycle) in their programs, we cannot expect our participants to do so in their lives. If we clear cut a woodlot or fill a wetland to facilitate new construction, we are modelling a strong lesson that might be in conflict with some of the things we hope to teach.

The whole program, not just the portion that relates directly to environmental ethics, must focus on environmentally friendly practices if we hope to deliver a consistent message. Henderson (1991) offered 50 ways camps can save the earth. Hundreds of other ways are also compatible with a philosophy of environmental harmony.

Through al our actions we must develop a sense of awe and respect for the environment. Almost everyone who walks into the Lincoln Memorial, for the first time or the hundredth time, experiences a sense of awe and respect; no one who experiences that sense would consider it appropriate to carve their initials into the base of the statue. Camps need to do everything they can to create the same sense of awe and respect for the "natural monuments" that comprise the camp setting. We must teach campers that in a wilderness setting or an urban one, the elements that comprise the environment are memorials to the life that surrounds us, and that life is deserving of respect. In short, the environment is not an adversary to be overcome.

Comfort in and with the Outdoors

Participants who are not comfortable being outdoors will have a very hard time focusing on anything other than their own discomfort. They stand little chance of ever learning to enjoy or appreciate the natural environment as a thing of beauty. Careful planning, appropriate food and clothes and early instruction can all contribute to this sense of comfort.

If our programs are poorly planned (or poorly executed), or if our participants don't eat well or dress appropriately, environmentally friendly behavior is often relegated to a position of secondary importance. Participants in a camp program, for example, will not appreciate the need to practice minimum impact techniques if they are cold, wet and hungry. They'll want a big fire -- perhaps need one -- regardless of its impact on the environment. Physically comfortable participants, in contrast, may be more willing to participate in a discussion of the impact of fires -- even small ones -- on the camp environment, and may be content to sit around a candle lantern in the evening.

Emotional comfort is also an important consideration. The logistics of many programs force us to rush right into whatever it is we are doing without taking time to acclimatize. We should encourage new participants to relax at the beginning of a program: to explore the camp environment, to look at the scenery, to slow down and appreciate the things they see.

Campers must also be instructed early on about potential dangers in the environment. Are there poisonous snakes in the camp? Are there dangerous bears in the surrounding area? What do our participants need to do to avoid hazards like poison ivy? By learning how to deal with such dangers, campers will have more opportunity to concern themselves with the environment rather than their own safety.

Similarly, basic skills should be introduced early. Participants in a canoeing program who are afraid they will drown will have very little time to devote to environmental considerations. Basic instruction, in this case in canoeing skills and proper use of a PFD, can help allay such fears, can increase comfort levels, and can offer at least an opportunity to appreciate the environment in which the activity is taking place.

Minimum-Impact Philosophy and Practice

Minimum impact skills, in camping and in living, should be emphasized by modeling friendly behaviors and by explaining why some techniques or behaviors are more friendly than others. Minimum impact techniques are related to specific environments, so it is important to explain to participants how specific behaviors impact on specific environments or elements of the environment. A number of excellent minimum impact guides are available (Hampton & Cole, 1988) for such instruction.

It is also important to consider effects from the interaction of environment and behavior. Leaving food waste in an area accessible to bears, for example, both attracts bears and teaches them that the camp is a good place to get food. Once a bear has learned this lesson, it has a tendency to stay near the camp looking for food. It may eventually become enough of a nuisance that it must be trapped and relocated or, in a far more likely scenario, killed to reduce the likelihood that it will destroy property or injure someone. This is one negative impact (at least from the bear's perspective) that is relatively easy to avoid by not leaving food out for the bear in the first place.

A Global Context

Instead of separating our environmental context into a "naturalist program," we can and should weave environmental education into our regular programs. The check points on an orienteering course, for example, might be located at sites with unique or interesting environmental characteristics. A crafts program might focus on painting with natural pigments rather than braiding lanyards. Our programs can become a medium for some very strong environmental messages if we incorporate small lessons into all of our regular camp activities.

If our camp personnel learn to utilize environmental education resources, they can incorporate environmental education concepts into "regular" camp activities relatively painlessly. Resources like Project Wild (WREEC, 1986), Project Learning Tree (AFC, 1975), and a myriad of environmental education guides provide suggestions and activities that are as appropriate in a camp as they are in a school or an environmental education center. Conclusion Camp programs are often focused on providing a positive recreation experience, but in a very real sense, recreation and education are closely related concepts. Moreover, if our goal is to foster campers' personal growth and development, we have an obligation to teach not only the skills for living in the outdoors, but also the appropriate and ethical use of those skills. The recreational experience can easily be structured to teach an awareness and understanding of the environment. By focusing on why and when and where to do things, as well as how, we can bring our programs "down to earth" and make environmental literacy a part of the camp experience.


Hampton, B., and Cole, D. (1998). Soft paths: how to enjoy the wilderness without harming it. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. Henderson, K(1991).50 ways camps and campers can save the earth. Camping Magazine, 63(5): 17-19+. Shrader-Frechette, R.S. (Ed.). (1987). Environmental Ethics. Pacific Grove, California: Boxwood Press. The American Forest Council (AFC). (1975). Project Learning Tree Activity Guide K-6, Project Learning Tree Activity Guide 7-12. [available through Project Learning Tree, 1250 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036]. Western Regional Environmental Education Council (WREEC). (1986). Project Wild Elementary Activity Guide, Project Wild Secondary Activity Guide, Aquatic Project Wild [available through Project Wild, Salina Star Route, Boulder, CO 803021.

Curt Schatz, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of recreation and leisure studies at the State University of New York College at Cortland; Leo H. McAvoy is a professor in the division of recreation, park and leisure studies at the University of Minnesota; and Tehri Parker is program director for the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point's Central Wisconsin Environmental Station.
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Publication:Camping Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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