Updated: Sep 2, 2019
At the base of a three-quarter lane windy dirt road lined with tall evergreens grown wild in the brush, I arrive at “Camp Paradise”.
This is the name I have given the yearly week long gathering of friends and family my brother and his wife have hosted on their farm for over twenty-seven years.
As a latecomer, I drove in to see tents scattered between evergreens or on the occasional grassy opening. Some people have had their yearly spot for so long that only in my imagination do I dare to play with the idea of usurping their site.
Directly ahead of me is the campfire that we use for pleasure, heat, and cooking. My brother logs his own firewood, consequently, if we wish, we can have a fire 24-7.
After twenty-seven years, there is a structure and routine of sorts. Under the overhang of two large trees are a dozen or so coolers, a rough hewn table for dry goods, a bar of course, and other tables for prep, cleaning, additional cooking, and games and arts and crafts. Breakfast and lunch are sometimes a community affair and sometimes a free-for-all. Adults join up in groups of two or three to prepare dinners. There are some regulars, but different people come different years until there are twenty or thirty of us.
Outside the main camp area is a path into the woods to the “Diana”—a five-sided box with a hole on the top and over a deep hole for our earthly needs.
In another direction beyond the community area, a narrow footpath with thick roots to step over winds through more trees down to a river with tiny rapids perfect for 6 year-olds. On the bank is a small brush and sand beach protected by trees.
The setting needed to be described to truly grasp the significance of the following story.
Eight children over a three-day period with no technology, deep within nature.
There were five boys and three girls—two boys, fourteen and thirteen respectively, and the rest between six and eight. Some were cousins and others were new friends.
They became a new group of “boggers”. Like some of their parents had done at their age, they ran out into the meadow to play. The grass was so high it almost hid a six year old while standing. They were given a large tarp on which they could play—under was not allowed. They eventually created individual apartments in the high grass—the “bog”—by rolling in it to press out their quarters. The adults were invited to peruse their handiwork but were shortly dismissed so they could continue enlarging their plot.
They became construction workers deep within the forest, building a fort made entirely of tree limbs, branches, twigs, and ferns. Inside they created “rooms” with beds, a fireplace and more all made out of twigs, rocks and moss. Eventually they made a door mat of stones with “Welcome to the Fort” painted on them. Adults joined in from time to time. Due to one of their mothers, they discovered that the fort belonged to Mother Earth and not a single person.
And then there was the river. For hours each afternoon, they rafted, swam, searched for crawdads, and generally frolicked in the two miniature rapids and gentle lagoon at the end. Adults participated or enjoyed from the small beach.
When not exploring, the children painted rocks, played cards and games, swung from a swing or a hammock or hung out by the fire, stoking it or even building it. Of course there were smores—sometimes for breakfast.
Throughout the three days, they often played all together—not separated by age or gender. Definite disagreements, hurt feelings, and unhelpful competition occurred, but none lasted long or were frequent. And not once did I hear “I’m bored”. If I had, I would have said, “Good. Your brain is resting and opening space for creativity.”
Most notable was their freedom and constant play. It was old school. No parents hovering and taking away their freedom to solve their own problems. No impeding their natural curiosity due to safety or time constraints. Of course we had a pretty good idea where they were and intervened on occasion. But mostly, they came back on their own to check in or get food and take off again.
For me, the learning that was going on from playing in nature was a joy to participate in and to witness. Of course, I saw their joy and freedom, but beyond that I saw:
Verbal communication, i.e. face-to-face engagement
Connection across genders and ages
Freedom of exploration and expression
Deep connection with the world around them
It is very unusual for children to experience the miracle of nature to this extent but that should not deter anyone from routinely taking them into nature. A walk on a bike and walking path could reveal a rabbit or two or twin baby skunks. The sound of running water. Trees or shrubs with morning dew. Streams of sunlight between tree branches.
Everyday small exposures to nature are valuable and significant. Visits to a park, a beach, or a local hiking trail for a family walk can be a path to more calm, creativity, and what I call “a brain pause”. A direct channel for connecting with the earth, ourselves, and our children.
One can only imagine what would have happened at Camp Paradise if anyone had had his or her technology. Even the power of nature couldn’t have always overwhelmed that.
Camp Paradise turned me into an unabashed believer. Experiencing nature with our children in any form, on a routine basis, is life enhancing. In addition to improving our physical and mental well being, it promotes joy and deep connection—something we all yearn for.