Outdoor immersion

Think about camps that let kids explore their natural surroundings

Last summer, Paget Catania brought out a tent to put up house guests at the family cottage. While the Toronto mother of five pored over the instructions, her two eldest daughters — 10 and 14 — grabbed poles and started building. “Come on, Mom, it’s easy,” they insisted. The three set the tent up in short order.

It was just another moment that demonstrated to Catania how sending her kids to a nature-oriented camp had benefited them. Particularly for young people growing up in the city (and even for those who, like Catania’s, have access to a cottage), nature camps put kids in close contact with the outdoors — and inspire them to learn about it and learn how to survive in it.

“Kids who grow up in an urban environment, even with the emphasis on the environment that there is in the school curriculum, get very little contact with the natural world. We call it ‘nature deficit disorder,’” says Al King, manager of Camp Can-Aqua (canaqua.ca), located just outside Cardiff, north of Peterborough. “That’s where camps play a huge role.”

Why nature?

When planning for summer, it’s tempting to choose camps that focus on soccer, theatre, leadership or (made extra popular by the Camp Rock movies) music. After all, choosing a sleepover or day camp where the main focus is paddling, hiking and campfires means kids won’t become better goalies or singers. But does that matter? “We do a lot in the city; the kids do theatre and hockey and lacrosse and piano. This is something you can’t get anywhere else,” says Catania.

Those who run or visit nature camps report that kids come back knowing how to start a fire, portage and deal with storms on land and water. They also have a greater understanding of ecological issues. The environmental topics covered at school in the abstract suddenly make more sense when kids get to actually stand in a stream while they talk about water pollution, or discuss garbage while watching a bird contemplate a piece of litter.

While ecology is becoming more of a focus, the old camp standards — canoeing, hiking, arts and crafts and campfire songs — still teach kids a great deal. A few weeks of outdoor immersion develops confidence, trust and a sense of identity. That comes from facing novel challenges. “I think camp exposes them to experiences they’re not normally exposed to,” says Peter Truman, director of Kettleby Valley Camp (kettlebyvalley.com) near Aurora. “And when they’re faced with challenges in the future, they can say to themselves: ‘It’s OK, I’ve managed to adapt in other situations.’”

Also, nature itself provides some great lessons via natural consequences. If you don’t paddle a canoe, you won’t move. If you forget to pack marshmallows, no one gets s’mores. “This is a very powerful lesson that turns kids into more resourceful, more energetic, more committed people,” says Joanne Kates, director of Camp Arowhon (camparowhon.com) in Algonquin Park.

Camps further encourage kids to see consequences by giving them more freedom: Teen counsellors and adult staff watch kids to ensure they’re safe, but they don’t micromanage. Campers have to remember to bring their raincoats and pack their backpacks properly. At Kettleby, for instance, kids serve themselves by passing around bowls of food, which teaches them to care for themselves and others. “They are so different when they come back. They’re much more mature and independent,” says Catania.

As well, Kates says camps that focus on nature get kids away from screens, and helps them focus not just on activities, but on each other. Particularly at sleepover camps, campers get very close and learn a lot about relationships. And since outdoor activities such as canoeing, sailboating and finding your way home on a hike require people to work together, they learn about cooperation and trust.

A range of choices for day camp

While central and northern Ontario have a huge array of choices for those looking for a nature-related summer camp, sleeping over for one week or more is not for every child — or parent. Fortunately, the city has several nature camps that operate on a day-camp format: They’re more affordable, and possibly a better choice for younger kids who aren’t ready to stay away from parents just yet.

Sites such as the Centre for Urban Ecology (humberarboretum.on.ca), which is located at the Humber Arboretum in the northwest corner of the city, and the Kortright Centre (kortright.org) in Woodbridge near Canada’s Wonderland, run day programs that incorporate swimming, canoeing and games. But the majority of the programming revolves around nature and ecology. Kids go on hikes to talk about butterflies and trees, do stream studies and look at bugs and frogs. There’s also a lot of talk about topics such as what kids can do regarding recycling, and respecting animals in the wild.

While the prices are competitive with other day camps — $195 a week at Humber and $225 at Kortright — the big challenge for these camps is convenience. Barb Fox of the Centre says some families carpool to her location every day, but it’s a lengthy drive for families who live downtown or in the east end. Most campers carpool or drive from nearby communities.

Kettleby has a solution to this problem. The 24-hectare site offers sleepover camp, but also a day camp program and bussing options. The camp has corporate partners, and offers cheaper rates and direct bussing for parents who work for its partners. But anyone can attend (for $315 a week) and take a daily downtown bus. Truman admits it’s a long ride for younger kids, but he says most get used to it and in fact are so eager to head up to camp, they barely say goodbye to their parents in the morning.

Sleeping over

For day camps, convenience may be the number one factor in choosing a site. For sleepover camps, selection should also begin with practical issues: Be sure that the camp allows your child to stay the length of time you’re both comfortable with (some camps have minimum stay requirements) and that the cost suits your budget.

Also, make sure the camp offers the programming you want. Catania, for instance, chose the girls’ camp Mi-A-Kon-Da (miakonda.com) for her two girls because it was truly rustic. The camp is near Parry Sound on its own island, there’s no electricity and everyone sleeps in tents. The days weren’t overly programmed and the camp took the girls on frequent camping trips.

King says some traditional camps actually have a lot of indoor activities, which may not suit you if you want a real nature experience. Even the size of the camp is important: Catania likes that her girls go to a small camp. However, her son ended up spending two weeks this summer at the YMCA’s large Wanakita (ymcahbb.ca), where his friends went, and loved it.

Finally, ask questions about a camp’s philosophy. “The most important thing is whether the mission of the camp fits with your mission for your family,” says Kates. Her camp focus is on building skills, including relationship skills. Kates says any camp that cannot define its values should raise a red flag with you.

Of course, children should have input on where they spend all or part of their summer, and may choose a camp because they think it looks neat, or their friends go there. After all, parents may send their kids to camp to learn and build life skills, but a camper just wants to get out there, get dirty and have fun.

Camp hunt

Looking for a safe, well-run camp in Ontario? The Ontario Camps Association (ontariocamps.ca) keeps an online database of accredited camps in the province, including those that specialize in the nature experience, as well as arts, sports and other specialties.

Don’t Wait! January is the perfect time to think about signing your kids up for summer camps.

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