Freedom To Explore

By Jaime Golba

Dunes Learning Center (DLC) is a residential outdoor center located in the Indiana Dunes National Park that immerses campers in nature to inspire lasting curiosity and stewardship. Being inside a national park, we have visitors from all backgrounds: inner-city kids, rural kids, outdoorsy families, and some who have never seen the stars or Lake Michigan.


Soaking Up Nature
To begin camp, we head down to the river where campers literally get their feet wet and explore the local watershed. While splashing around, they explore sunken logs and leaf debris, search for macroinvertebrates, and in the process, learn about water quality. These activities lead to conversations about why we should care about water and how our actions can affect it. Discussions about our environmental impact are vital at camp because campers bring back those topics to their homes and communities. But a river isn’t necessary to get conversations going; a pond, stream, or even a vernal pool can spark these. Large D-frame nets or little aquarium nets can be used to sample for macros in any pool of water.

The All-Day Hike
A camp favorite (or at least a staff favorite) is a 4.5-mile hike through the diverse ecosystems found in the Indiana Dunes. Although we only spend seven hours on the trail, it has been coined “the all-day hike” since many of the first-year campers have never hiked this far. Completing the hike gives all campers a sense of accomplishment, from walking the sheer distance to climbing steep sand dunes. The campers are so distracted by having fun that they don’t realize they are learning about local flora and fauna and the importance of biodiversity.

We also play a traditional game of hide-and-seek in a not-so-traditional fashion. We call it “Camouflage.” Rules and different versions of the game can be found by searching “Camouflage Hide-and-Seek,” or use the example on page XX. Adapting a familiar game and relating it to unfamiliar concepts allows campers to connect to their new surroundings. After the game is completed, the door opens for conversation about the importance of adaptations for survival, i.e., to avoid predators or to find mates. We also discuss the challenges of being a predator or a prey, and the different skills that are crucial to survival. This is another fun and simple game that campers can take home to their families and friends to bridge the connection to nature.


Hunting For Adventure
We have found that the ultimate way to connect campers with nature is simply through free exploration. There is no right or wrong way to explore; just let campers dive into their surroundings with an eye on safety. For example, we remind them what poison ivy looks like and ask them not to climb on anything higher than waist level. Ample time is provided for free exploration in allowing connections with nature to really blossom.

One example of guided free exploration that participants seem to love is salamander hunting. The terrestrial salamanders that live beneath downed logs provide a perfect up-close encounter with wildlife. We show campers an ethical way to roll logs (this ensures camper safety as well as the safety of the critters below) and teach them what to look for. Searching for salamanders pushes many campers out of their comfort zone, also creating an opportunity to learn about indicator species and why they are important (another connection with nature). It is important to note that salamanders are amphibians with permeable skin. Handling should be done carefully to ensure the safety of these sensitive animals. Campers should not handle the animals if they are wearing bug spray, sunscreen, or other products containing chemicals. Putting salamanders in clear containers is the ideal way to observe them in order to avoid having to touch them.

Up-Close Encounters
A new addition to free exploration at DLC is ProScopes—iPads with microscope attachments. During traditional free exploration, students explore any tree, flower, log, rock, fungus, or other found item. The iPad microscopes allow campers to take a peek at nature from a different perspective, using familiar technology. If they find fungi, they can look at the underside for individual spores and other details. Campers can take a closer look at insects and see the tiny hairs on their legs. The kids can peer at the anther of a flower and examine the pollen. The microscopes let the campers be curious about nature on a different scale, one they wouldn’t be able to see without the scopes. With a cost of around $150 (plus phone or iPad), this is a nice addition to a naturalist’s toolkit, though not waterproof during inclement weather.

Overall, free exploration can just be letting campers run around in an area of the woods, looking at trees, climbing logs, and feeling their surroundings. It’s an opportunity to be kids and experience nature play, to get messy, and not worry about being allowed to climb that log or not. Ensuring safety is necessary, but providing guidelines gives campers the opportunity to assess their surroundings and set their own boundaries. It’s important to remember that a huge area of natural forest or woods to explore is not needed—nature is all around us.

Like so many camps across the country, immersing children in nature happens every day at DLC. With the freedom to observe and appreciate, campers learn by having fun, and carry their new knowledge back to their families and communities. Together, we are helping to create more scientifically-minded citizens, as well as the next generation of environmental stewards.

Jaime Golba is the Residential Education Coordinator at Dunes Learning Center. Based within Indiana Dunes National Park, the center allows more than 10,000 young people from diverse communities and backgrounds to discover, learn, explore, and reflect on the science and wonder of nature during a summer camp or school-year program this year. Reach her at


5 Tips for Guiding Nature Exploration

  1. Ask lots of questions. Easy questions help build camper confidence; open-ended questions challenge them to think about nature in new ways.

  2. Have campers find five different items that are the same color, shape, or size.

  3. Use all of the campers’ senses—immersive experiences go beyond just sight and include sounds, smells, textures, and sometimes even tastes.

  4. Encourage curiosity! Help campers think of questions they can research later, based on the things they find.

  5. Find signs of an animal: a footprint, a home, a feather, food sources, scat, or something else.


Camouflage Hide And Seek
Explain to the kids that they will be playing hide and seek. The rules, however, are slightly different. The finder is the hawk and will not move. The kids who hide must leave a portion of their bodies showing (e.g., a finger, a shoe, some hair). The hawk will close its eyes and count to 30 while everyone hides, and then will call out when seeing where other kids are hiding. The best hiding place (the person who best uses the concept of camouflage, as decided by the instructor) will be the next hawk. If the kids are good at hiding, challenge them to move closer to the hawk and see who can get the closest without being seen. Change locations periodically.

After the game, go over why camouflage is critical to the survival of so many animal species. Ask kids to name examples of animals that camouflage themselves. To discuss further, ask the kids why so many plants and animals are not camouflaged. Why are there colors besides green and brown in nature? Some answers follow: (1) to attract a mate—e.g., birds, some lizards; (2) to attract a pollinator—e.g., flowers; (3) to warn other animals to stay away because they are poisonous or dangerous—e.g., wasps and bees, many caterpillars, butterflies, some frogs and salamanders, coral snakes; and (4) to pretend they are poisonous or dangerous by mimicking animals that are—e.g., various butterflies and other insects, some snakes.

This lesson plan is an activity from the Environmental Activities for Youth Clubs and Camps, a resource developed by the Peace Corps Office of Overseas Programming and Training (OPATS). It was contributed by Peace Corps/Mexico.