areas with natural areas complete with trees, native plants, and water elements.
Children of all economic and cultural backgrounds play in nature in similar ways. Author David Sobel gives the example of trees and what children do with them. “They climb on them, build forts in them, read in them, hug them, make nests with their leaves, create carnival rides on their branches, play with dolls in their shade, gaze at the sky through their leaves, become friends with them.”vi
Venturing a little further into the outdoors, how wonderful would it be for a child to live in nature for a few days and nights?
Overnight in Nature
Away at camp in the great outdoors, far from home, kids have the unique opportunity to learn about nature on its own terms, away from the distractions of the city.
Children’s camp, as we know it, began about 150 years ago. In 1861, Connecticut school headmasters William and Abigail Gunn took a group of kids into the wilderness along the Long Island Sound for two weeks of hiking, boating, fishing, and sailing. Parents saw the positive
influence this had on their kids. vii
The Gunns had started the first overnight camp in the United States and the idea caught on.
Influenced by cultural trends and economics, children’s camps have changed over the years, while retaining the spirit of immersion in the outdoors as a fun learning and recreational experience. Some camps are private, many of which are sponsored by youth and community organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, JCA, churches, and synagogues. School districts also
Students play games during camp at Temescal Gateway Park
began to offer outdoor education overnight camps.
Private overnight camps and those sponsored by school districts have many similarities, but also differences in purpose. While private camps emphasize recreation, and a vacation from home (or a vacation from the kids), school outdoor education camps have a different agenda. They offer hiking, stargazing, nature exploration, and include lessons on environmental science topics. These lessons tie in with subjects taught in the classroom, and allow kids to watch natural science unfold - in nature.
While many private camps are thriving, major funding cuts in public schools have severely limited the number of children able to participate in outdoor education, and many programs have been eliminated. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is just one example of a school district affected by budget cuts, resulting in dramatically fewer children able to attend camp through their schools.
Today more children go to summer camp than ever before, most go to private camps which can be quite expensive. While scholarships are available to a limited number of
children, basically those who can’t afford to go, don’t.
MRCA & Outdoor Education
For over 25 years, the MRCA and its partner the SMMC have made it their mission to give inner-city children meaningful nature experiences, and “provide recreational access from downtown Los Angeles and the inner city… to anyone wishing to enjoy the Santa Monica Mountains.”viii
In 1985, the MRCA entered the world of outdoor education with day programs at the William O. Douglas Nature Center at Franklin Canyon Park. We started a school field trip program, bringing kids from all over LA County for fun and educational nature walks. Lots of kids had never been in untamed nature. Visiting a local nature preserve dispelled fears of the outdoors, and they loved the experience so much that they came back with their families.
The success and popularity of our day programs led us to branch out into overnight outdoor education programs. The chance came when the SMMC bought Temescal Canyon in 1995, which could accommodate an overnight camp. We met with local educators and
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