Na­ture lessons are life lessons

Sum­mer day camp al­lows chil­dren to ex­plore and in­ter­act in our na­tive habi­tat

Rappahannock News - - FRONT PAGE - By Alex Sharp VIII | Rap­pa­han­nock News staff

What we learn from the woods and the rivers, from the an­i­mals and the in­sects, are lessons that last us the rest of our lives.

So says lo­cal ar­borist and wildlife ex­pert Lyt Wood, who is host­ing the 31st an­nual Rap­pa­han­nock Na­ture Camp June 13-24 on his 11-acre Singing Creek Farm, at the Hazel River’s edge two miles west of Rt. 231 in Sper­ryville. Con­ven­ing Mon­day-Fri­day from 9 a.m. -3 p.m. over two weeks, cam­pers 8 to 12-years-old will ex­plore the forests, rivers, mead­ows and ponds of Singing Creek and sur­round­ing ar­eas, in­clud­ing the Shenan­doah Na­tional Park, which is within walk­ing

dis­tance. There’s an overnight cam­pout the last night. Tu­ition is $250 per camper, and since space is lim­ited, early reg­is­tra­tion is re­quired. Fi­nan­cial aid is avail­able for fam­i­lies who may be de­terred by the cost.

“Un­der­stand­ing na­ture, to the ex­tent we can achieve it in a life­time, is im­por­tant, not just for kids but for ev­ery­body,” camp di­rec­tor Wood said in a Feb. 12 in­ter­view. “When I started this camp in 1986, I had this love for nat­u­ral things. Teach­ing has been an ex­pe­ri­ence that al­ways brought great joy, just point­ing things out to chil­dren. It is beau­ti­ful and in­ter­est­ing to see their eyes light up. I mean there was one lit­tle girl in my first camp, she’s look­ing at a lit­tle, tiny inch­worm on her fin­ger, and she said, ‘And to think, up un­til now, up un­til this camp, I took all th­ese things for granted.’”

That lit­tle girl is in an­other gen­er­a­tion, and her chil­dren very well could be Wood’s cam­pers this year.

“And what has hap­pened is, it’s the older gen­er­a­tion that spends their time on their phones and look­ing at screens; and their chil­dren are fol­low­ing that ex­am­ple,” he said, not­ing that kids to­day seem to have an in­creased sense of ur­gency, and that he has wit­nessed a pro­gres­sive dis­con­nect from our nat­u­ral sur­round­ings. “We are all teach­ers, and we teach by our ex­am­ples . . . It’s what our chil­dren are be­ing fed in school. And it’s what hap­pens at home. And there is a mes­mer­iz­ing qual­ity to th­ese things, and chil­dren nowa­days look at the screens and they take this as primal (ges­tur­ing at an open hand rep­re­sent­ing a cell phone). What’s in their hand is not what the real thing is, out there.”

Through ex­plor­ing Singing Creek’s Frog Pond, the Hazel and the for­est, the cam­pers will: awaken an in­ter­est in our nat­u­ral sur­round­ings, ob­serve liv­ing plants and an­i­mals in their nat­u­ral habi­tats, un­der­stand the role of hu­mans in this shared en­vi­ron­ment, have fun and make new dis­cov­er­ies each day. Cam­pers should be pre­pared to get wet and muddy, since ac­tiv­i­ties are al­most en­tirely out­side, in­clud­ing games and songs, hik­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing birds, but­ter­flies, moths and snakes, as­sess­ing wa­ter qual­ity, catch­ing and re­leas­ing wild an­i­mals, car­ing for flow­ers and trees, and pro­duc­ing a camp news­pa­per.

The staff con­sists of Wood, as­sis­tant di­rec­tors Kat Habib and Sarah Moore, ex­pe­ri­enced coun­selors, and coun­selors-in­train­ing.

THE NA­TURE CAMP TRA­DI­TION

The first Rap­pa­han­nock Na­ture Camp in 1986 sprouted from Wood’s in­volve­ment cre­at­ing a Pied­mont En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil pro­gram pro­mot­ing re­gional en­vi­ron­men­tal education. Eight to 10 nat­u­ral his­tory day camps emerged from that pro­gram, Lyt said — though over the years the pro­gram dwin­dled un­til the last day camp in the re­gion, his, was dis­con­tin­ued by the PEC in De­cem­ber 2014. That’s when Head­waters stepped in last year to save the camp from ex­tinc­tion in its 30th year.

Kat Habib is Wood’s neigh­bor in Sper­ryville.

Habib looked over the Hazel River for years, on her daily walks, cu­ri­ous about what the cam­pers did each sum­mer. And so she jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to get in­volved through Head­waters last year, when they took over spon­sor­ship.

“I re­ally love na­ture, and think it’s re­ally im­por­tant for kids to be out­side, and to be aware of what the world has to of­fer,” said Habib, an avid hiker and oc­ca­sional boul­derer who is the Head­waters Next Step Co­or­di­na­tor at the high school. “It’s just such a great pro­gram. It’s be­ing out­side, it’s learn­ing how to ob­serve. There is art, there is na­ture, there is com­mu­nity build­ing — it’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness . . . Lyt has a re­ally strict pol­icy: No dig­i­tal devices. So it’s like the kids com­pletely and to­tally un­plug while they are there. And they aren’t bored for a minute, be­cause there’s so much to do and see.”

The first camp was hosted at the Shaw House in Rock Mills, then at a Hazel River camp in Slate Mills, then Moun­tain Green Farm on the Wash­ing­ton out­skirts, then Horse­shoe Hol­low Farm down Fod­der­stack Road — un­til the camp fi­nally moved to Wood’s Singing Creek in 1996, where it has re­mained.

Wood’s idea to start a nat­u­ral his­tory day camp in the county was cul­ti­vated by his ex­pe­ri­ence as a camper and then in­struc­tor at the 70-year-old nat­u­ral his­tory day camp at Ve­su­vius, be­tween Lex­ing­ton and Staunton in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains. And he cred­its his sev­enth grade bi­ol­ogy teacher, Mrs. Hath­away, with in­still­ing in him a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the nat­u­ral world, later be­com­ing ac­tive in con­ser­va­tion, study­ing forestry and wildlife man­age­ment.

A CHANCE TO EX­PLORE

“I am RE­ALLY, re­ally sen­si­tive to age-ap­pro­pri­ate things,” Woods said of es­tab­lish­ing con­tent for each day’s ac­tiv­i­ties for the 8-12 year old cam­pers. “And again this is some­thing that I think the schools ne­glect, that con­ven­tional education ne­glects: Chil­dren are not lit­tle adults; chil­dren are chil­dren, and what they re­ally need, and ask for in many ways, at that age, is a chance to ex­plore, dis­cover things for them­selves, to dream, to imag­ine, to be cre­ative, to play, things like that. And that’s what we fo­cus on. I don’t set out to teach them ANY­THING, ex­cept life lessons. Our motto for our camp is ‘Na­ture lessons are life lessons.’

“For ex­am­ple, I might teach them how to iden­tify poi­son ivy. It’s a good plant to know,” Woods con­tin­ued. “And they learn what a vine is, and they learn what a com­pound leaf is, and things like that. But the in­for­ma­tion-ori­ented things, I don’t teach a lot of that.”

Woods doesn’t teach con­ser­va­tion, at all.

“I be­lieve con­ser­va­tion at that age, it can be fear-in­duc­ing at worst; at best it’s ab­stract, with­out a ground­ing in hands on, with­out re­ally get­ting to know what we’re talk­ing about first. This step is skipped in school,” he said. “Our camp sort of fills in the gaps, and pro­vides a bal­ance. We are not try­ing to in­doc­tri­nate the kids in any way, or steer them in any di­rec­tion. We only have them for ten days, in ten days a year we can only do so much. What we do in that time is we, among other things, at­tempt to re­claim their child­hood, rather than to skip all th­ese won­der­ful awe­some child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and go into in­for­ma­tion mode. And I’m not a par­ent, but I would think if I was look­ing at it from that per­spec­tive, I would want my child to make the most of those years.”

‘EV­ERY KID SHOULD GO’

Erin Platt of Sper­ryville at­tended the Rap­pa­han­nock Na­ture Camp in the mid ’90s from age eight through 12, and her son Jay will at­tend his se­cond Singing Creek sum­mer day camp this June.

“There is a huge im­por­tance to kids un­der­stand­ing na­ture, but not only that, it is cru­cial how much free­dom you get, to roam and ex­plore on your own, and then to come to­gether to talk about what ev­ery­one’s learn­ing,” she said. “You learn dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives from dif­fer­ent kids, plus you gain in­for­ma­tion that you wouldn’t have known oth­er­wise. Last year was Jay’s first year. He went be­cause ev­ery kid should go. It’s two weeks of hik­ing in the woods and play­ing in the river, and pick­ing up bugs and learn­ing about birds — and Lyt is one of the most amaz­ing peo­ple that I know, so I’m happy to have my kid spend two weeks with him.”

Wood said that sim­ply through ex­plo­ration and care­ful ob­ser­va­tion of na­ture and wildlife — such as eight-inch sala­man­ders at Frog Pond, or catch­ing moths and but­ter­flies to re­lease into the But­ter­fly Tent to draw and de­scribe, or learn­ing the Coy­ote Walk, which teaches kids to keep their heads up to scan their sur­round­ings while walk­ing silently through the woods — his cam­pers can de­velop life­long habits and a deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the county and world at large.

“We’re not try­ing to steer them to­ward a fu­ture that we en­vi­sion, we want them to make their own fu­ture, learn to think for them­selves and trust their own senses,” Wood said.

“Last year we did this thing called quiet time, where the kids — we go on a cir­cuit walk — and the kids each pick a spot to sit for 15 to 20 min­utes, ob­serv­ing na­ture,” Habib said. “And they can draw, or they can write, but that’s it. I re­mem­ber just sit­ting on my lit­tle perch and just watch­ing the kids. Just see­ing a kid to­tally en­thralled by the pass of a dragon­fly, you see them minutely fo­cus in si­lence, and it’s a re­ally beau­ti­ful mo­ment. And af­ter we do that, Lyt comes around play­ing his recorder, and we all fol­low in si­lence back to the path and to this cen­tral mo­ment when we share ob­ser­va­tions. And I think those few mo­ments are ac­tu­ally some of the most pow­er­ful — just com­pletely turn­ing off, but also turn­ing on.”

Con­tact the Head­waters of­fice for more in­for­ma­tion: 540-987-3322.

COUR­TESY PHO­TOS

BY MELISSA LAMB

Last year’s na­ture camp staff, from left: Wood, as­sis­tant camp di­rec­tor Kat Habib, and coun­selors Dy­lan Dwyer, Ju­lian Cordero and Tina Yirgu.

COUR­TESY PHOTO

Cam­pers in the ’90s, beat­ing the heat in the Hazel River. “We only have them for ten days,” Wood said. “What we do in that time is we, among other things, at­tempt to re­claim their child­hood, rather than to skip all th­ese won­der­ful awe­some child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences and go into in­for­ma­tion mode.”

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