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Children's Health

Nature-based Summer Camps Help Get Kids Healthy

Going to camp is more than just a way to entertain kids during summer months when school is out, research is showing camp has mental and physical health benefits too.

By Stephanie Soucheray

Wendy Tonker watches as a girl throws a dagger into the ground. Meanwhile a boy shakes a tree limb to loosen its grip on his spear during Tonker’s “Primitive Hunting” class. Later on they may discuss animal tracking, medicinal plant identification, and North Carolina insects.

A counselor from Schoolhouse of Wonder takes kids out into the woods where they learn how to identify trees and plants.

A counselor from Schoolhouse of Wonder takes kids out into the woods where they learn how to identify trees and plants. Photo courtesy of Schoolhouse of Wonder

To the outside observer, it seems as though the seventh graders are extreme fans of the  film “Hunger Games,” but they’re actually participating in a day camp at Schoolhouse of Wonder, an outdoor camp in the Eno City Park in North Durham.

Each year, thousands of North Carolina school children will flock to art camps, sleepover camps, and the Governor’s School to help fill up the dog days. It’s a time-honored tradition, but lately scientists and researchers have noticed that summer camp – besides saving parents’ sanity – may provide health benefits to kids. These benefits are especially apparent at camps like Schoolhouse, which emphasize natural experiences and plenty of outdoor time.

Eli Carley, the program director at Schoolhouse said he doesn’t doubt the camps ability to improve the health of students. While working at Schoolhouse, which hosts one-week day camps for 500 kids ages 4-12 throughout the summer, Carley said he’s seen remarkable health benefits among his campers.

“For kids with any sort of attention deficit issues, being outside teaches them a whole new way to think,” Carley said. “We’re built to be outdoors, to solve problems and to move.”

The science backs up Carley’s observations. As more and more researchers are looking into the rise of Attention Deficit Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, many have concluded that a lack of time outdoors has contributed to the problem.

Sarah Haggerty is the director of education for the Piedmont Wildlife Center camps in south Durham. She said camp is an important way to get kids outside and exploring nature.

“We see improvement in ADD and ADHD kids,” said Haggerty. “There’s more stimulus in this kind of environment, and their ability to multitask is a gift in nature. They recognize bird calls, for example. Their ability to focus in many directions at once is a blessing for them as a naturalist.  Here they get to explore their strengths and feel more successful.”

More recently, Haggerty said she’s seen the camp, which hosts 600 kids over weekly sessions each summer, help students with Asperger’s or other social disorders.

Research is showing that when kids get outside and move, it improves their ability to focus as well as improving their physical health. Photo courtesy of Schoolhouse of Wonder

Research is showing that when kids get outside and move, it improves their ability to focus as well as improving their physical health. Photo courtesy of Schoolhouse of Wonder

Tonker, the director of Schoolhouse, said she’s seen the transformative power of nature-based camps in her own family.  She first encountered Schoolhouse, which attracts about 500 kids each year, when looking for a summer camp for her son.

“He has some special needs, and if video games were an option at camp, that’s what he’d be doing all day,” Tonker said. But her son responded to the video-game free curriculum at Schoolhouse, and Tonker was so impressed with the camp she decided to come on board as an employee.

“We are not trying to tell kids the modern world is bad or video games are bad,” said Tonker. “We like the modern world and video games. We just want to show them a different way of thinking, of relating to the world.”

Tonker said being outdoors can open kids to new critical thinking skills. On a rainy Wednesday in early June, Tonker showed a group of seventh graders from the Durham School of the Arts why atlatls, or spear- throwers, helped ancient women hunt alongside men by adding leverage to make up for body weight.

“We want them to realize that there ancestors were really smart,” said Tonker.

Tonker and Carley said they also want to tire out the campers.

“We’ve had parents tell us their 12-year-old fell asleep on the car ride home,” said Carley. “That’s remarkable.”

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