Nature summer camp sets kids free

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At Outside In Nature summer camp, kids interact with every aspect of nature—including unearthing the occasional skull. Credit: Peter Bergen

Growing up in the ’70s or before often meant figuring out how to do things on our own or with other kids. When we weren’t furiously riding our bikes and skateboards through the neighborhood or using our latchkeys, we were playing in the woods, wandering through creeks and culverts, and playing outside until dark. We carved wood, made things out of cardboard and sticks, and slept outside. 

With the advent of helicopter parents, velcro shoes and über-scheduled kids, there are now 12-year-olds who can’t tell time on a round clock, tie a shoe or make their own cooked breakfast. 

Enter Outside In Nature camp, where a kid can have a ’70s childhood again, learning how to do things like use a pocket knife, build a campfire, crawl through a culvert and work with their friends to learn fulfilling outdoor skills. Some might see it as learning self-sufficiency, but it really ends up looking less like independence and more like interdependence. The variety of ages, years of camp attendance and skill levels ensure that kids eventually understand that if they don’t know how to do something now, they will be able to figure it out at some point. And that in itself is a great skill to learn.

“So many kids today have been led to believe they should know how to do things—things they have never done before or even knew existed before,” says Outside In Nature camp-creator Peter Bergen. “I watch them get so frustrated with themselves, me and other kids when they try to perform a skill for the very first time ‘perfectly’ that they have never done before. And it’s almost every skill we do in camp, from lighting a match or using fishing poles to keeping their hotdog on the stick and not in the fire.” 

Over time, with the support of others, they do learn the skill, and when they get it, it’s thrilling. 

“One of the nice things that comes up is to witness ‘The First Time’ excitement … first fire, cooking, fish, using a knife, etc …” Bergen says with a smile.

Bergen, who the kids know by his nature name, “Flicker,” has run the Outside In Nature camp at Tara Firma Farms for almost 10 years now and has watched many of the kids, including my own, grow up during that time. 

He first encountered Tara Firma Farms, which rests near the border of Marin and Sonoma Counties, in 2011 when he attempted to order a whole pig to cook—steam-pit style—as part of a children’s program that accompanied an adult Bird Language Intensive Course in Santa Cruz. The farm’s owner, Tara, told him that they didn’t sell entire pigs, but they got to talking about her desire to have an educational component to the farm. 

“Tara asked if I would be interested in running a kids’ nature program,” says Bergen. “I said I would return after the weeklong bird language program, pre-field the site to see what it had to offer, and get back to her. So I did just that. I walked the entire perimeter and criss-crossed the steep terrain. I wrote up what I wanted for the camp: fire circle, space in the barn, access to the lake for swimming and fishing and more. Only two requests were denied: a zip line and overnight camping.”

The camps are kept small for an optimal experience, usually hovering at around seven to 10 kids per camp, and timepieces are not allowed, creating a timeless feeling to the day. 

“Because of the small number of kids-to-staff ratio it is possible to be flexible and change things up as we notice energy, flow and opportunity move,” Bergen says. “Another camp with trained and paid staff usually has a schedule and day/week plan to follow and there may be little room for improvisation. Here’s one example that happens frequently: there is no set time for snack or lunch, and we may be so engaged in a craft or activity that the kids are not hungry. The energy is moving and we may not break until 1–1:30pm for lunch. The next day lunch could be over at 11:30am.”

“We like that Peter’s honest with us and doesn’t sugar-coat things,” says my 12-year-old son, “Coal,” who has attended the camp for six years. Coal derived his nature name from his enthusiasm for making campfires.

Bergen spent his youth at his aunt and uncle’s farm helping deliver eggs and interacting with the land.

“I would spend nearly every weekend with Uncle Charles and Aunt Mildred,” he says. “Saturday mornings I would help Uncle Charles on his egg deliveries. At the end of the run I would get paid one dollar, which I would immediately spend on fishing gear or arrows or traps.”

Bergen has worked with adults, teens and kids and is one of those rare people who treats them all equally. It’s one reason kids love him.

“I love working with people, regardless of age, who are enthusiastic and are interested in learning—whether kids, teens or adults,” Bergen says.

But how does he do it? What makes the camps educational but fun and safe but adventurous, and puts kids in that space where time ceases to be relevant?

“This is the secret sauce, and a simple recipe at that,” Bergen says. “I think back on my childhood days at CharMil Farms and what my brothers, sisters, friends and I did for fun … mix in a little bit of attention towards safety and add more C.U.P.s—Children’s Universal Passions … think of all the stuff you did as a kid when no adults were around—and I draw on my Tom Brown Jr. Tracker/Wilderness Survival skills, the Audubon Canyon Ranch Naturalist training, Jon Young’s 8-Shields cultural mentoring skills and my own experiences as a father, uncle and friend.”

While Bergen has experience as a naturalist and possesses wilderness survival and tracking skills, he’s also motivated by his lifelong love of the outdoors.

“A few years back,” he says, “I had someone say, ‘So is that your job?’ and I hesitated a moment. Then I replied, ‘I’ve had jobs before. This isn’t a job, it’s my joy.’ And for the most part it has been just that. I really enjoy the many different helpers I’ve had in camp over the years. I love that I get to learn new stuff to bring to the kids—especially the ‘Old Guard’ kids who know all my jokes and punchlines.”

Outside in Nature Camp can be found online on Facebook here.

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