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Consider nature camps for kids this summer

Those lazy days of summer seem far way. However, if you’re a parent, now is the time when you may begin to ask yourself, “What will the kids do when school is out?” Summer is the perfect time to give children the opportunity to experience something new that may shape or support their future interests.

Consider enrolling your children in a camp that allows them to disconnect from technology and tune in to the great outdoors. Familiarity with the natural world forms the basis for environmental understanding. Your children will learn more than the name of the frog they encounter in your backyard. They will build a foundation for ecological literacy — knowledge of the connections that exist in the world around us. By learning what frogs eat and where they live, your child will discover first-hand the importance of the interactions that sustain life on Earth.

Cary Institute educators have been helping to build this foundation of understanding through our Summer Ecology Day Camp. Students in grades 2-7 explore the Cary Institute’s 2,000-acre campus while using its diverse habitats as an outdoor classroom. Campers have a blast sinking up to their knees in mud while learning about wetlands and the vital role they play in cleansing freshwater, housing wildlife, and mitigating floods. When cooling off in a woodland stream, they learn where the water is coming from, where it is going, and the creatures that call it home. They also get to interact with practicing scientists.

We’ve found it’s important to have a balanced mix of free exploration and guided investigations. Last summer, our junior counselors were given the task of cleaning out 16 100-gallon cattle tanks, which were transformed into miniature wetlands. These study ponds were the basis for a summer-long camp experiment, as well as a unique way to study the multitude of aquatic organisms that colonized the tanks throughout the season. Guided by our educators and the junior counselors, campers observed, collected data and learned about the processes that occur in natural wetlands.

An experiment helped the campers learn firsthand how the input of fertilizer into our waterways can affect the amount of oxygen in the water, which in turn influences resident plants and animals. Fertilizer was added to half of the study ponds and each week campers measured the amount of oxygen in the water.

During the course of the summer, they were able to see that fertilizer amplified the growth of algae and aquatic plants, leading to changes in dissolved oxygen levels.

Without knowing it the campers were practicing math skills, learning chemistry, honing observation skills, and beginning to understand the impacts humans can have on natural systems. In addition, the small group sizes and individualized attention fostered positive relationships with adults and other students.

In recent years, school curricula have become more focused on teaching specific learning standards to prepare students for the multitude of tests they must complete in their academic careers. Often, subjects such as ecology and natural history get little or no class time. Field trips in general have become rare because of budget cuts, and many kids no longer have the free time they did a generation ago to explore the outdoors.

Summer is the perfect time to promote learning the ecological and environmental sciences and help fill the gap becoming ever more present in school curricula. Our Ecology Day Camp is one of several options in the Hudson Valley.

Older students (13 and up) might be interested in Camp Clearwater, which is run by Hudson River Sloop Clearwater and has a focus on environmental leadership.

Overnight environmental camps are offered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and for a camp with a more agricultural focus, check out Sprout Creek Farm’s day camp. Find the best fit for your child and awaken their curiosity for the natural world.

Jen Rubbo is an educator at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook.

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