A Unique Setting

By Sara Macho

Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park isn’t the only national park to host residential camps and programs for children, but it is one of the first, says Stacey Heffernan, director of the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center (CVEEC).

The campus opened in 1994, and encompasses 500 acres. The specific piece of land in Peninsula, Ohio, is closed to the public, giving children the chance to openly explore relatively unspoiled nature.

Operated in partnership with the National Park Service and the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the nonprofit friends group of the park, the CVEEC exposes children to a project-based curriculum correlated to Common Core and Ohio State Academic Content Standards in science, math, language arts, social studies, fine arts, and technology.

The CVEEC warmly embraces both children and adults throughout the year. A resident program for fourth to eighth graders focuses on the Cuyahoga Valley watershed, and explores energy flow, biodiversity, natural cycles, community, sustainability, and human/earth interplay.

Day programs discuss geology, ecology, natural history, and Ohio history, while weekend youth and adult programs offer professional development opportunities for teachers, natural-history classes, and weekends for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

Programs are taught by a full-time staff and field-instructor interns.

In summertime, the CVEEC comes alive in a different way, offering week-long ACA-accredited overnight camps, led by college students home for summer break and teaching-interns with post-graduate experience in the academic arena.

With the Cuyahoga Valley National Park as its backdrop, the camps mix scholastic and leisure pursuits.

The Magical Theatre Company of Barberton, Ohio, presides over Theatre Camp, teaching skills in acting, voice, movement, and stage combat. There is no wooden stage; that’s what the outdoors is for.

The camp culminates with performances in the forests and fields, and parents are invited to hike in order to see their campers perform.

The popular Survivor Camp tests a much different skill set. Children in grades five through 10 learn to build a fire without matches, locate edible wild plants, solve complex puzzles in record time, and master the sport of orienteering.

To finish the week, children hike 4 miles for an overnight camp-out putting their learned skills to the test.

The local historical farming valley is the perfect setting for Farm Camp, a newer initiative bearing the motto, “Farm it, Sell it, Cook it!” Attendees spend most of their days at Hale Farm and Village, an outdoor living-history museum in Bath, Ohio.

Here's where campers bunk. Photo courtesy of NPS/Ted Toth

According to its website, mid-19 th- century life is depicted through historic structures, farm animals, heritage gardens, cooking demonstrations, and demonstrations of Early American craft and trades.

For the visiting campers, mornings begin with farm chores, including the feeding of barn animals, weeding, and composting. The campers also harvest produce to be sold at local farmer’s markets.

The entrepreneurial piece is an important part of the Farm Camp experience, Heffernan says.

Lastly, Chef Camp, which celebrated its third year in July, welcomes members of the in-house kitchen staff and visiting local chefs to teach various cooking skills and techniques.

During the week, campers design the menu and create dishes to be served at a self-created pop-up restaurant. Along the way, the campers shop locally for ingredients, visit the farms and farmers who grew their food, and host tasting sessions and themed dinners.

Described by many as a true “jewel” nestled between Cleveland and Akron, the 33,000-acre Cuyahoga Valley National Park offers a myriad of recreational activities, along with historical significance in industrialization and commerce.

Designated in 1974, the park, then called the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area (CVNRA), protects open countryside, a canal that helped build the nation, and the river that helped spark Earth Day and the Clean Water Act, according to an informational sign that hangs in November Lodge, a programming building on the CVEEC campus.

In 2000, the CVNRA was named the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Heffernan, who holds master’s degrees in biology and education, says she is a big believer in having approaches in formal education to augment traditional classroom learning.

“Not that it totally takes the place of it, but when kids are reading about things in the textbooks, but haven’t experienced it…when they’re learning about food chains and haven’t actually seen the dragonfly larva eat the opposing larva…essentially, when they come out here, they’re seeing all the things that they read in textbooks come alive,” Heffernan says.

“It’s about connecting youth to the land, and giving them experiences where they start to have emotional connections to natural areas. Having this jewel in between Cleveland and Akron is huge, and it’s so wonderful that it is preserved. And because it’s positioned that way, we can pull a lot from the urban audiences that wouldn’t normally have the chance to get to a national park.”

The CVEEC campus is surrounded by gorgeous meadows, lush forests, ponds, and walking trails. It consists of two 64-bed dormitories (Lipscomb and White Pines), furnished with bunk beds and dressers, bathroom and shower facilities, and common areas.

An on-site food-service staff provides meals in the dining hall.

The Schueler House, which serves now as the administration building, was built in 1969 and purchased by the park in 1981.

Wetlands were constructed in 1993 to serve as the wastewater treatment facility for the EEC.

The Lipscomb Dorm was one of the earliest homesteads in the valley, dating to the 1850s. Steps away stands the 12-year-old November Lodge, built using sustainable practices and alternative-energy sources, including sun tubes, south-facing windows, and refurbished wooden beams. A wind turbine and demonstration solar panels also dot the landscape.

The lodge houses the Legacy Room for large-group activity, a library, and a vibrant art room servicing the fine-arts portion of the curriculum. There are also campus science labs used for brief tutorials and instruction before outdoor lessons.

Facilities are wheelchair-accessible. Buildings are available for rental when children are not on campus.

“The Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center is not the only residential environmental-education center in a national park.  The Great Smoky Mountains has one, and the Tetons, but it is one of the first and with a project-based curriculum.

"We’ve tweaked the program over the years, but we’ve kept it project-based, culminating in projects that use the children’s thinking skills,” Heffernan says.

“This is a very academic program. Teachers are also learning when they come out. Most of the classes are outside, and only start or end in an indoor space. It’s rare to spend much time inside.”

Incorporated within the curriculum is a broad message to have fun, make new friends, and enjoy the national park setting, Heffernan says.

Homesickness is generally not a problem, as most campers come from nearby cities throughout northeast Ohio. Constant calling and emailing are discouraged, as they can take away from being engaged in the overall experience. Being slightly disconnected from home, after all, is the key to a successful camp encounter.

For those interested in day camp, the Junior Ranger program gives campers the opportunity to interact with rangers, explore the national park, and complete requirements to receive a badge.

“Our hope is that they learn skills in the various camps and certainly develop a love for being outdoors and utilizing natural areas and spaces,” Heffernan says.

“We work with our staff, talking about teaching moments. No matter what they’re doing, if a Great Blue Heron glides in and stops in front of you, gets a frog out of the pond, and is eating it in front of you, take a moment for that. It’s moments like that, special moments, because those are the things that bond kids to nature.

"When they see something that’s just a phenomenal act of nature, that’s what makes them want to see more, and then they become better observers, wanting to spend more time outside.”

For more information on the educational opportunities in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, visit www.conservancyforcvnp.org/education/ .

Sara Macho is the former editor of Camp Business.


The November Lodge was a gift from Mort November in memory of his wife and daughter, who shared a love of children. The building opened in 1999 to provide additional space for groups to gather and learn about the environment.

Its sustainably designed features enhance the Cuyahoga Valley Environmental Education Center’s curriculum, demonstrating ways to reduce our impacts on the earth.

Energy efficient light bulbs produce the same amount of light for much less energy

The wood timbers in the Legacy Room are from a barn that was torn down

Rain chains are attached to the gutters. As water drains out of the gutter and follows the chain to the ground, it slows down. This allows the water to soak into the ground rather than quickly running off, reducing the amount of water running into nearby streams. Too much water runoff can cause flooding.

The carpeting is made from recycled plastic bottles. To make the carpeting, plastic bottles were turned into fibers. Every square yard of recycled carpet uses the plastic from up to 40 two-liter bottles.

South-facing windows provide natural light all year round, reducing the need for artificial lights. The south side of a building receives the most constant amount of light.

The inside wooden doors are made from red oak trees that have been sustainably harvested. This means that new trees are planted regularly, so that there are more trees growing than being cut down.

Evergreen trees provide a natural barrier for wind that would otherwise blow directly on a building. In winter, this helps the building to keep the heat inside.

Source: Signage in the November Lodge