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Take a minute to remember a time from your childhood when you played with friends outside in a favorite place. How did it feel playing in this special place? Whether in the woods, a park, a lake, the beach or in the mountains these places and experiences are essential for children. The importance of developing a connection with the natural environment cannot be understated for children in this era of Nature Deficit Disorder (Louv 2006). Childhood connections with the natural environment help them to develop a sense of wonder, a sense of belonging in place, and the motivation to be good stewards of the environment (Nabhan & Trimble 1994). This understanding of environmental stewardship is essential if we are to develop sustainable ways of living and the knowledge and skills required for managing our planet as a finite resource in the future. So what does this have to do with summer camp? I believe that the camper experience at Teton Valley Ranch Camp (TVRC) provides children with a unique immersion into wild places and the opportunity to build a lasting connection to nature that they will carry with them long after they leave camp.

This blog post draws on my passion for place-based education and the findings of a wide range of educational research that I have used in training field science educators. I have spent a large part of my professional career as a field biologist and field science educator studying wildlife and teaching in National Parks throughout the Western U.S. My expertise as a biologist and educator has taught me that direct experiences in nature, such as the trips campers enjoy at TVRC, play a key role in their appreciation of the natural world. As an educator I know that experiential learning engages multiple intelligences (Gardner 1995), encourages critical thinking, creative problem solving, integration of concepts, aesthetic and creative development, and comprehension across many levels of understanding. Teton Valley Ranch Camp staff support campers learning about nature through deliberate integration of ecology content and intentional teaching through place-based pedagogies (Sobel 2005) in which the focus is on direct experiences in the natural environment (Nabhan & Trimble 1994). The staff at TVRC are exceptional at providing children with expert guided and free exploration time in wild places. A month spent exploring the mountains and rivers of Wyoming encourages campers to develop a sense of place in the wilderness and to develop an appreciation for wild places that they will hopefully continue to explore and enjoy throughout their lives. This connection to nature and enjoyment of wilderness is why children need wild places to play in as they grow and develop into young adults.

Pedagogies of place (Orr 2005; Sobel 2005) define the role that wild places have in the forming of identity and the sense of belonging to a place. At TVRC we actively engage campers in developing this identity and sense of place by exploring some of the best wild places in Wyoming. From the Tetons to the Wind River Range our campers experience challenges on wilderness trips that help them build confidence and a positive identity through achieving goals that may not have seemed possible before coming to camp. Place-based education practices aimed at ecological literacy (Capra 1999) also promote connection to wild places through gaining an understanding of the interconnections and interdependencies in ecological systems like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The common element is the connection with nature through immersion in wild places which our campers experience on backcountry trips and Nature Discovery programs.

The nature of this connection can perhaps best be evoked by reflecting on our own experiences in natural environments and the layered sensory experiences that can be part of a simple walk through the forest, a swim in a local stream, or daydreaming while lying in a mountain meadow. These experiences are filtered through the child’s imagination and inform additional ways of knowing and understanding the world. These experiences are further explored, reimagined and reinterpreted through creative expression by our campers. For example, trip leaders and Nature Discovery staff encourage children to reflect on how they feel in nature and on experiences that have helped them to grow as leaders. This process of direct experience and reflection are an essential part of the learning cycle (Kolb 2015) that educators at Teton Valley Ranch Camp use in designing memorable and meaningful experiences for campers each summer.

An appreciation for the beauty of the natural world is also often cited as a worthy attribute to encourage in children (Seed et al. 1988; Capra 1999). The emotional connection that arises through fascination, awe, and wonder, whether it be at the multitude of colors in a field of wildflowers or a breathtaking sunrise over the Teton Range, are also types of knowing and developing a sense of place. This sense of place is an emotional connection to nature that is wedded to an understanding based on intuition and natural instinct. Aesthetic appreciation is also a key feature of experience in the natural world (Capra 1999). The natural world presents us with unlimited combinations of form, color, shape, movement, pattern, sound and texture, all of which lend themselves to specific creative experiences that engage campers because they reflect their experience on a deep experiential level. The various modes of experiential learning in nature are innately reflective of the sounds, sights, smells, textures, and colors of the natural world. They can evoke emotional, intellectual, creative and physical understandings and deepen knowledge. Ultimately these experiences connect children to the natural world and help them learn to become stewards of our environment and protect the wild places that they have grown to love exploring.

So why do children need wild places? I believe they need wild places to feel connected to the natural world and to develop an appreciation for wilderness as the future stewards of our environment. This appreciation of nature will also help ensure that future generations of campers can explore and enjoy these wild places. Campers at Teton Valley Ranch Camp have been blessed to experience some of the best wild places on Earth for the past 80 years. Through developing a sense of place in the wilderness our campers grow deeply connected to nature and through the many lessons they learn from summiting a peak, to catching a native trout, and wrangling horses at dawn, they develop a positive identity that will help them to take on new challenges after camp. These experiences collectively contribute to their growth and development into confident young adults that know they can make a positive contribution in their world beyond camp. In closing, I believe that children need wild places in order to help them develop the Strength to lead, and the Faith to follow.