The Wetfoot Blog

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Gardens are a Good Fit for Camp


The growing movement to increase a child’s connection with the outdoors pairs well with summer camps. Most camps have programs that immerse kids into nature in some capacity, ranging from canoeing to horseback riding to wilderness hikes. Camps are known to successfully utilize their wide open spaces to reconnect the urbanized youth with a surreal wilderness. With all the open space available and the numerous activities that kids don’t get participate in at home, why should camps put time and energy into a garden; in which the area is small and confined, structured, and requires a significant share of less-than-glamorous labor to be productive? The answer to me is simple; there is no other program that shares in the ideals of connecting with nature and is more concretely applicable to life at home than gardening. Kids discover the link between nature and food, hold wilderness in the palm of their hand, and help create nutritional awareness while implicitly building character.


Gardening has a place in summer camp as much as any other program. Numerous cities around the country, including Madison, are developing youth gardening programs, often targeting those who do not necessarily have the opportunity to attend summer camps. The kids who experience these city gardens make a connection with the land in their own back yard. The kids that are afforded the opportunity to travel to the ‘true wilderness’ may return with a jaded view of what nature looks like; vast forests and numerous lakes and streams void of civilization. This is wilderness, sure, but you can also find nature to be the tree in your back yard, the grass in-between the sidewalk and the street or the song bird on the feeder. As William Cronon states in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature (*),” setting apart nature from civilization is environmentally destructive. Summer camps routinely create a false picture of wilderness, isolating it from civilization and thus creating an excuse for destructive environmental habits around the places we live. Civilization becomes to them, an unnatural island infected with the destruction of humanity while nature is a sanctuary. Cronon uses two trees, one within the confines of the city and the other in a wilderness area, as subjects to argue how humans manifest a dualism between nature and civilization. The tree in the city is viewed as unnatural while that same tree placed in an area known to be removed from society is viewed as pristine and wild. Children who come to camp may fall into this trap simply due to their immersion into a more extreme wilderness than most children will experience. I believe that a garden can break that boundary between the two worlds.

So why is it that gardening is that one program area that will transfer more lessons learned back home? I think the answer is simple; everyone eats. Camp programs allow children to have fun and enjoy the great outdoors. They also have deeper purpose to create a safe place for children to interact with others while being free from stereotypes, social norms, and report cards. All of those benefits are extremely valuable to the summer camp’s success, however, taking lessons home from typical programs involve critical thinking and interpretation of each activity. A link between camp and life at home has to be formed, such as learning to paddle a canoe to learning a new mathematical process at school. That can be a large feat for a 12 year old. Gardening on the other hand needs no such link. What kids see, grow, and eat in a garden at camp is the same as a garden at home, or at a neighbor’s house, or the community garden. The food at the market is the same as that which grows in garden. The garden surrounded by ‘wilderness’ is the same as a garden surrounded by buildings. In the end, children and adults will hopefully see the benefits of taking care of the land far away as well as the land they spend most of their time, for all has the potential to be wild.

With community gardens springing up across the country, it would be foolish not to consider the benefits of gardening at summer camps. After all, who wouldn’t want their child coming home and talking about the food cycle and eating healthy?

Happy Growing.


Ryan Wagner is the Wilderness Program Director at Camp Manito-wish YMCA

Reference (*)

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