At Camp Backcountry, it’s not uncommon to see a small group of seven-year-olds bent over a cluster of chokecherry shrub, staring intently at a fuzzy, black-and-yellow blur buzzing around the flower petals. Their counselor fields the occasional question about the bee’s industriousness and perhaps mentions its role in the greater ecosystem. For the most part though, the kids just watch what the bee is doing. “It brings a whole new appreciation,” says camp director AnnaKate Hein. “A lot of times you can teach without even having to speak.”
Situated on the 8,200-acre Highlands Ranch Community Association Backcountry Wilderness Area, life-changing moments occur through the camp’s structured, science-related activities like uncovering bobcat tracks and studying animal scat, as well as unstructured endeavors like fort building and playing camouflage games in the woods. Combining the two approaches provides a chance for children to learn social, emotional, and communication skills, Hein says.
Camp Backcountry and other summer camps that take place entirely (or almost entirely) outside have myriad benefits. Certainly, the unlimited airflow has made them a much safer environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than that however, these camps use nature as an opportunity for kids to learn what they’re capable of, both on an individual and a community level. “Camp Backcountry can be that extracurricular thing that can change their life,” says Lindsey McKissick, outreach coordinator for the conservation area on which the camp sits. “It sounds big to change a kid’s life, but personal experience tells me that’s exactly what happens.”
Opportunities for Risk-Taking and More
At Avid4 Adventure, another local summer camp where kids spend the bulk of their time outside, the life-changing moments occur through positive risk-taking. Their multiple camp options focus on outdoor sports like hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, and mountain biking—and sometimes a combination of them all. The goal, however, isn’t to turn kids into super athletes. Rather, it’s to use new challenges to help the kids become better, stronger people, explains Avid4 Adventure CEO Paul Dreyer.
Both Hein and Dreyer point to research that highlights the positive effects of physical activity, unstructured play, and time outdoors on children’s physical and mental health. Unfortunately, kids often don’t get these benefits at home, they say. Backyards tend to be too small and rarely contain much wildlife. Days are packed with school, after-school activities, and shuttling between commitments. And then there’s the amount of time kids spend in front of screens, which has only increased with the pandemic.
In contrast, outdoor camps generally allow kids to explore natural areas and participate in activities where they have the freedom to make up the rules. In these face-to-face, screen-free settings, children are fully present with their group, which can lead to strong, authentic relationships. “Touching dirt and being around green things … [helps people] find connection with others or themselves,” Dreyer says, noting that connection can happen indoors too; it’s just more likely to happen outside.
Outdoor environments are also a natural place for kids to expand their comfort zones. While Avid4 Adventure has safety as its top priority (stats show their camps have fewer medical incidents than those shown in a national study of other programs, such as football, gymnastics, and pedal cycling), campers have the perception of facing risk when they mountain bike or rock climb. “Kids can feel a little bit of fear in their bodies, but then at the end of the day, they can say, ‘I did it,’” Dreyer says. “It really helps boost self-confidence.”
When Conditions Aren’t Ideal
Parents may worry about their kids being outside in less-than-ideal weather conditions, but that too can be a benefit. Hot temperatures can be turned into an excuse to have water fights. Rainy days mean puddles to splash in. Sure, there might be some initial discomfort in these conditions, but with the right mindset, kids learn perseverance and grit. “Our instructors manage the risk of inclement weather but also look for teaching moments, using the environment to enhance the camp experience,” Dreyer says. “Outdoor environments, and particularly their changing nature, help kids gain experience with resiliency.”
Camp directors like Dreyer and Hein work hard to ensure the children in their care experience growth on an individual level. They hope kids walk away from camp with a life-long love for healthy living and outdoor activities. And ideally, kids will recognize their role in protecting these wild things, both on the micro and macro levels, from the single bee to the natural expanse it inhabits.
“You won’t want to protect something, if you don’t love it first. And you won’t love it if you don’t understand it. And you won’t understand it if you’re not taught,” Hein says, paraphrasing a favorite quote from the Senegalese conservationist, Baba Dioum. “We start with that teaching piece.”
Ready to commit to an outdoor camp? Here’s a collection of great options around the Front Range.
Empowerment is the name of the game at Avid4 Adventure, which offers day and overnight camps focused on paddling, biking, rock climbing, hiking, and survival skills. Experienced instructors keep kids safe, while also teaching campers how to take calculated, well-communicated risks. Meet-up locations are available throughout Boulder and the Front Range.
Held on a private, 8,200-acre wildlife habitat conservation property near Highlands Ranch, Camp Backcountry’s roster of summer day camp options includes horseback riding, field journaling, and for older adventurers, white water rafting through Clear Creek Canyon. Best of all, each camp takes place entirely in plein air.
At Boulder-based Junkyard Social Club’s STEM-focused summer days camps, kids spend the bulk of their time outside on the play structures taking on challenges like designing a mini-golf course, building a fort village, and launching hand-built parachutes from a structure’s highest level.
The Urban Farm brings the simple pleasures of country life—a freshly laid egg, the clucking of chicken—to 23 acres just east of downtown Denver. Campers learn to be stewards of the land as they get their hands dirty planting seeds in the garden and caring for the horses, rabbits, and more that live on site.
Have a child eager to monkey around? Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs offers immersive day camps where kids explore the award-winning zoo and engage with its (smaller, less ferocious) inhabitants. Among the hands-on learning opportunities: Helping keepers prepare animal snacks (tortoise salad, anyone?) and maintain their habitats.
Kent Denver School’s Tiny Farm Day Camps provide big opportunities for fun and learning. Budding farmers learn about Colorado’s native plant species, explore the world of pollinators, and visit with goats and chickens.
Tall-grass tromping. Cool creek wading. Critter tracking. That’s all in a typical day at summer camp with Louisville’s My Nature Lab. When kids aren’t exploring natural areas, they have a chance to meet the snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs, and salamanders that call the Lab home.