When Nature Calls

Decades before environmental education became “vogue,” the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (DPNC) in Mystic, Conn., was bringing people of all ages into the wild. From hiking and birding to paddling and painting, DPNC has led the way in encouraging people to enjoy and appreciate the natural world! 

Although programs extend throughout the year, nothing can fully match the experience of the Summer Nature Camp. Remember the days when you just opened your door and ran outside to play?  You found a community of children, explored, got muddy, and came home happily at the end of the day? Summer camp at DPNC strives to give children the freedom of a natural childhood, but with the safety and supervision that parents want. The open-ended camp programs are embedded with traditions that keep campers coming back for years.

As the world speeds up, the nature center slows down. When the sounds of sirens, chaos, and electronics are overloading the senses, we sit on a rock and listen to bird songs. When society is calling for tidiness and order, we get messy, play with mud, and explore in the rain.

In the 21st century, technology, workplace demands, school, and family life often work together to keep people indoors. In his book, The Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv called this phenomenon ”nature-deficit disorder.” Our mission is to go in the opposite direction by reconnecting people to the natural world outside their windows. We are the antithesis of couch-sitters, as we spend each day moving along trails, exploring new terrain, and learning new skills.

Part of our success is due to the never-wavering focus on the core mission: to inspire an understanding of the natural world and ourselves as part of it—past, present, and future. Each component of the curriculum has its roots in that mission, and that gives clear and strong guidance when considering or making changes to programs, be it camp or educational outreach.

From Camper To Counselor

DPNC now hosts third-generation summer campers. Research indicates that prominent memories are often rooted in outdoor experiences. Often starting as campers themselves, counselors return to share these experiences with new children. Their internal GPS system directs them back to DPNC as the skunk cabbage emerges, salamanders hatch, and hummingbirds return. Very much like the monarch butterflies, something deeply intrinsic leads them. DPNC prides itself on the loyalty and commitment of its staff members. We seek educated counselors skilled in teaching and mentoring students. Many of the counselors are classroom teachers during the school year and nature guides during the summer. This allows them to meet a fine balance between direct teaching and facilitating nature play. Many children who come to DPNC want to learn specific details about plants and animals. But many others come just to experience the freedom a summer in nature can provide. Educators are given the training, skills, and flexibility to meet the balance between the two. They respond to their unique group and tailor programs to meet the needs of each child. 

Let Kids Be Kids

Summer Nature Center camp is based on a strong foundation of classic activities. Hiking, playing games, exploring in the woods, turning over logs and rocks, pond dipping, fishing, and catching frogs are all favorites. Building fairy houses on the Forest Loop or eating lunch on Council Rock by the stream where clay is harvested are always requested activities. Of course, a highlight of any day at DPNC is meeting the live animals, such as a resident bird of prey or snake. A great day is finding a garter snake, snapping turtle, or other animals in the wild.

Field trips to other local natural areas allow us to share many types of ecosystems with the children. Scrambling over boulders at Glacier Park, seining for fish at Bluff Point, and experiencing the challenge of a day-long hike at Devil’s Hopyard are only a few of the exciting adventures. We show children the diversity of the natural environment and start them on their journey towards global environmental awareness. 

Summer Nature Camp is also a place where children are given permission, with careful guidance, to test their physical abilities. Accomplishing a challenging physical feat boosts the children’s confidence to a new level.  Educators are skilled at facilitating group games that display teambuilding, in which groups bond by supporting one another. They may cheer others on when the hike begins to seem long or root for others as they navigate their way across a stream or fallen tree. Nature camp builds confidence, compassion, and relationships too!

One of the less-obvious benefits of our core traditions is simply giving children an opportunity to slow down and feel the spiritual part of their being. The world of education is usually at a fever pitch of “hurry up and perform”; it’s a treadmill of pressure, especially in early childhood. At Summer Nature Camp, they are allowed to begin to understand who they are and where their place is on our planet. Summer Nature Camp is like soul food. 

Worth The Mess

And we are also growing the planet’s future environmentalists. From the most basic camp policies of ”pack in, pack out” and encouraging the use of reusable water bottles and other lunchbox items, to conversations about threatened species, habitat loss, and ”living green,” children begin to understand the importance of existing gently on Earth.

Allowing children to grow this way can be messy and requires a certain amount of risk. But the benefits of a natural childhood far outweigh the risks and challenges posed by piles of laundry. Given opportunities to challenge themselves under the supervision of trained counselors, children who come to Summer Nature Camp learn to trust themselves. We grow children who are healthy, independent, and confident in their abilities. It’s the reason why many families return each year. 

To enhance Summer Nature Camp for families, we offer several specialty camps, such as Native American Camp, Primitive Tool Camp, and partnership camps with area organizations. This year, the themes have been incorporated into core camps that guide the week and add excitement to the day. The themes provide a backdrop to enhance traditional games, activities, and explorations. But nature truly determines the schedule! No matter what the theme, if something interesting is happening in nature, we will stop everything to learn and experience firsthand.   

Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center Camp is a place of peace, tranquility, hands-on discovery, respect for individuals, environmental awareness/education, and fun, where children are allowed to grow slowly, discover themselves, and stretch their abilities. It’s a place where they connect and begin the very important task of becoming the stewards of the planet.

Davnet Schaffer is the assistant director/early childhood education director at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic, CT.

Pauline Gaucher is the summer camp director. For more information, visit www.dpnc.org. For information on Summer Nature Camp, contact Gaucher at pgaucher@dpnc.org or call (860) 536-1216.