Penn State’s Outdoor School program offers students an opportunity to receive college credit for being a camp counselor.
Eight young campers sit in a circle on worn, pressed-down grass under a shady tree. A college-aged counselor sits with them, prompting them to reflect on the past week.
A few more counselors come join the group, causing rowdiness as everyone eagerly shares their favorite memories.
Cabin time, playing cards, camp fire, night walk, and skits were popular favorites. “It was nice getting closer with my friends,” one boy camper said. “And making new ones.”
Counselors, too, told their most memorable moments. They also expressed their pride in the campers’ apparent growth in respect and responsibility. One counselor complimented the campers’ team work and real-life application of the learned material, which includes information on the natural outdoor world and its inhabitants.
“The wide range of ages in one place is really potent,” said Zoey Greenberg, program co-director, about the program and its purpose.
The program, Outdoor School (ODS), is held at Camp Blue Diamond and run by Shaver’s Creek, Penn State University’s nature center.
Ellen Will, the program director of 17 years, said that ODS aims to “provide both elementary and college students with a positive outdoor experience.”
Penn State students apply to become counselors or learning group leaders to fifth-grade campers who stay overnight at the camp for three nights (Tuesday-Friday).
While counselors aid in group management and have full responsibility during cabin times, learning group leaders teach the educational lessons to the campers. Penn State offers students the opportunity to earn 2 credits for participating in the program.
Every week at ODS is different as a new fifth-grade class and Penn State student staff come into the mix. There are about 5-7 sessions/weeks of camp per semester.
The price per camper is about $160, says Will, which takes care of food, lodging, and programming. Many schools fundraise to help cover the cost and encourage kids to sign up.
ODS began in 1965 in Penn State’s College of Education with a movement to do school camping and lake/pond study.
Since then, it has taken the idea of experiential learning and crafted it into a set curriculum which is thoroughly executed each week. Kirsten Waldkoenig, a program coordinator, referred to ODS as a “well-oiled machine.”
Camp Blue Diamond’s off-the-beaten-path location is on a lake in the woods. “Isolation is very important,” said Greenberg. This allows for campers to be immersed in the environment they are learning about.
Greenberg considers fifth grade to be the perfect age group to be a part of this program because of their “sense of wonder.”
Counselor Ashley Hummel believes ODS provides a refreshing escape that is both enjoyable and educational for the campers. “There isn’t really a chance for them [campers] to break away,” Hummel said.
By combining natural and outdoor education with camp activities, ODS tries to foster a fun and effective learning platform.
This idea is exemplified through the many activities that drive the curriculum.
According to Will, campers don’t play ordinary tag at ODS. Instead, they play photosynthesis blog tag. Most campers are chemicals and one is the plant. The plant must tag the other chemicals needed to photosynthesize.
Although some activities are just as simple as tag, others are more in-depth and complex. For example, “Then and Now” is one of the main activities that takes place at ODS, dominating an entire afternoon.
Campers are taken back in time to the 1850s.
Camp counselors dress up in old-fashioned attire and act as members of that society.
Five stations are set up around a large field with about three counselors in character per station. Cabins take turns visiting each station with their learning group leader before switching to the next one.
One station asks the campers to help build stools for the hoedown they’re having that night. Campers use a two-person saw to cut a tree trunk for a seat and a drawknife and shaving horse to sharpen tree branches for stool legs.
A bunch of old artifacts are shown at the next station. Three counselors sit on a tree trunk and show one artifact at a time, each giving a different purpose to the same artifact. The campers have to guess which is the correct usage.
Another station is for trading with a center table stocked with antique goods. Campers are assigned an occupation and objects they need to complete a task. They need to trade with merchants in other occupations in order to acquire what they need to make their good.
Also, there are old-fashioned wooden toys on display at another station. Counselors show the campers how to use them and then let them try the toys themselves.
Finally, there is the kitchen station. Here, campers make butter by shaking small jars of buttermilk to replicate how butter used to be churned. Counselors also teach them how to spin wool.
“What is that?” said one counselor working the hoedown site as he pointed at a camper’s digital camera.
Throughout the whole activity, counselors stay in their role. They interact with the campers as people living in the 1850s.
Kathleen Murphy, a counselor working the toy station, said the most valuable part of ODS to her is “working with kids of different background and personalities.”
Will explained that, for most of the campers, this is their first time being away from home for an extended period of time. ODS gives them a unique opportunity to learn responsibility, independence and confidence. “I always say the children come home taller,” Will said. “So do the counselors.”
According to Will, Penn State students walk away from this experience with enhanced leadership, group management and communication skills. “Most students learn more than they expected to,” Will said.
Will believes ODS also prompts students to consider a future career path in outdoor education.
Maggie Ruppel, an intern at Shaver’s Creek and learning group leader, noted that this program is her first teaching experience. She has learned to adapt her communication skills in order to be an effective group leader in this setting, Ruppel said.
While many staff members have reflected upon their self-improvement, they have also found value in interacting with the campers.
Darren Holmes, a counselor who plans to pursue a career in outdoor education, said he enjoys “seeing them [campers] experience nature and have respect for what’s out here.”
At the close of the week, campers and staff received ODS T-shirts in which they put on and go around signing each other’s. Campers raced around frantically to obtain all of their peers’ and counselors’ signatures. They created hug-lines for the counselors, refusing to leave without a warm goodbye.
They built relationships in the midst of the activities they executed to educate about the outdoor world. ODS teaches and promotes both respect and appreciation for nature to a young audience that is eager to learn.