Richard Louv, in his best-selling 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, coined the expression nature-deficit disorder. He is careful to remind the reader that this is not a medical diagnosis. The term describes the effects that nature deprivation can have on people. Recent studies suggest that alienation from nature appears to have the following effects: increased attention difficulties, higher rates of both physical and emotional illnesses including depression, and a higher crime rate. Representative of the situation today is the comment made by a four-grader: “I like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electrical outlets are!” Children today prefer playing indoors rather than outdoors. There is no doubt that television and computers encourage this situation. Parental concern about child safety outside the home is another contributing factor.
In his book, Louv identifies and discusses the many causes of nature-deprivation present in our society. He asks the question, “Should we be concerned?” He responds strongly in the affirmative. And finally, he calls for action – in education, in individuals, in families and in communities.
Where does camp fit into this model? Obviously, summer camp is not a complete and comprehensive solution. Campers head off to camp for sessions between a week and two months. If camp is the only time a child experiences nature, the effect will likely be only short-term, but if camp arouses the sense of wonder in the child to the natural world that surrounds him or her, if it provides experiences that lead to personal growth, the effect of summer camp can be life-changing.
At Camp Nominingue, campers travel two hours north of the Montreal. They roll into camp down a kilometre long road through a pine plantation. Set on the shores of Petit Lac Nominingue, the camp site covers 400 acres of woods, fields and tree farm. Nominingue offers an outdoor experience to campers between the ages of seven and sixteen. All campers live in tents, a wall tent set on a wooden platform with beds and mattresses. After lunch on arrival day, campers are asked to turn in their cell phones and I-pods to the office. That is part of their experience at Nominingue. During the course of their stay at camp, campers will have the opportunity to go further into the wilderness on a canoe trip. The youngest campers travel on an overnight down the lake; 10 to 13 year olds will travel for three to five days in Parc Papineau Labelle, located a few kilometres south of camp; while 14-16 year olds will travel two hours further north to Parc La Verendrye for a seven to ten day experience.
Over the years, I have spent 26 summers at Camp Nominingue. The best and most-vivid memories are sensory memories: listening to the haunting cry of the loon on a cool evening sitting around a campfire; lying snug and warm in my sleeping bag with the rain pouring down on the tent-fly, with the rumble of thunder overhead and lightning flashing in the distance; listening to the dip of the paddle as it glides through the clear lake-water on a calm, summer morning; hearing the cheers from the dining hall; watching the glowing embers of the camp fire at the conclusion of a haunting story; the sense of weightlessness after putting down a pack or rolling down a canoe at the end of a long portage; the list is endless…
The camp motto, taken from a quote by Henry David Thoreau, sums up Camp Nominingue’s philosophy:
Rise free from care before the dawn and seek adventure. Let the noon find thee by other lakes and the night overtake thee everywhere at home.
We want our campers to feel at home in the outdoors. We teach them outdoor and canoe tripping skills, and offer experiences that we hope they will want to repeat outside of camp with their parents and later, with their own children.
Going to summer camp in itself will not ensure that children learn to love the outdoors, but given the right experiences, it can encourage a life-long love affair with nature, camping and canoe-tripping.