Nature lessons are life lessons

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Thirty years after founding the Rappahannock Nature Camp in 1986, camp director Lyt Wood continues to inspire children through exploration of the county’s biodiverse habitat. From bearded bee-keeping in the 80s to identifying ginseng in 2015, Woods favors hands-on learning. Courtesy photo

Summer day camp allows children to explore and interact in our native habitat

What we learn from the woods and the rivers, from the animals and the insects, are lessons that last us the rest of our lives.

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Rappahannock Nature Camp Director Lyt Wood Courtesy photo

So says local arborist and wildlife expert Lyt Wood, who is hosting the 31st annual Rappahannock Nature Camp June 13-24 on his 11-acre Singing Creek Farm, at the Hazel River’s edge two miles west of Rt. 231 in Sperryville. Convening Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. -3 p.m. over two weeks, campers 8 to 12-years-old will explore the forests, rivers, meadows and ponds of Singing Creek and surrounding areas, including the Shenandoah National Park, which is within walking distance. There’s an overnight campout the last night. Tuition is $250 per camper, and since space is limited, early registration is required. Financial aid is available for families who may be deterred by the cost.

“Understanding nature, to the extent we can achieve it in a lifetime, is important, not just for kids but for everybody,” camp director Wood said in a Feb. 12 interview. “When I started this camp in 1986, I had this love for natural things. Teaching has been an experience that always brought great joy, just pointing things out to children. It is beautiful and interesting to see their eyes light up. I mean there was one little girl in my first camp, she’s looking at a little, tiny inchworm on her finger, and she said, ‘And to think, up until now, up until this camp, I took all these things for granted.’”

That little girl is in another generation, and her children very well could be Wood’s campers this year.

“And what has happened is, it’s the older generation that spends their time on their phones and looking at screens; and their children are following that example,” he said, noting that kids today seem to have an increased sense of urgency, and that he has witnessed a progressive disconnect from our natural surroundings. “We are all teachers, and we teach by our examples . . . It’s what our children are being fed in school. And it’s what happens at home. And there is a mesmerizing quality to these things, and children nowadays look at the screens and they take this as primal (gesturing at an open hand representing a cell phone). What’s in their hand is not what the real thing is, out there.”

Through exploring Singing Creek’s Frog Pond, the Hazel and the forest, the campers will: awaken an interest in our natural surroundings, observe living plants and animals in their natural habitats, understand the role of humans in this shared environment, have fun and make new discoveries each day. Campers should be prepared to get wet and muddy, since activities are almost entirely outside, including games and songs, hiking, identifying birds, butterflies, moths and snakes, assessing water quality, catching and releasing wild animals, caring for flowers and trees, and producing a camp newspaper.

The staff consists of Wood, assistant directors Kat Habib and Sarah Moore, experienced counselors, and counselors-in-training.

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Campers in the ’90s, beating the heat in the Hazel River. “We only have them for ten days,” Wood said. “What we do in that time is we, among other things, attempt to reclaim their childhood, rather than to skip all these wonderful awesome childhood experiences and go into information mode.” Courtesy photo

The Nature Camp tradition

The first Rappahannock Nature Camp in 1986 sprouted from Wood’s involvement creating a Piedmont Environmental Council program promoting regional environmental education. Eight to 10 natural history day camps emerged from that program, Lyt said — though over the years the program dwindled until the last day camp in the region, his, was discontinued by the PEC in December 2014. That’s when Headwaters stepped in last year to save the camp from extinction in its 30th year.

Kat Habib is Wood’s neighbor in Sperryville.

Habib looked over the Hazel River for years, on her daily walks, curious about what the campers did each summer. And so she jumped at the opportunity to get involved through Headwaters last year, when they took over sponsorship.

“I really love nature, and think it’s really important for kids to be outside, and to be aware of what the world has to offer,” said Habib, an avid hiker and occasional boulderer who is the Headwaters Next Step Coordinator at the high school. “It’s just such a great program. It’s being outside, it’s learning how to observe. There is art, there is nature, there is community building — it’s an environmental awareness . . . Lyt has a really strict policy: No digital devices. So it’s like the kids completely and totally unplug while they are there. And they aren’t bored for a minute, because there’s so much to do and see.”

The first camp was hosted at the Shaw House in Rock Mills, then at a Hazel River camp in Slate Mills, then Mountain Green Farm on the Washington outskirts, then Horseshoe Hollow Farm down Fodderstack Road — until the camp finally moved to Wood’s Singing Creek in 1996, where it has remained.

Wood’s idea to start a natural history day camp in the county was cultivated by his experience as a camper and then instructor at the 70-year-old natural history day camp at Vesuvius, between Lexington and Staunton in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And he credits his seventh grade biology teacher, Mrs. Hathaway, with instilling in him a deep appreciation for the natural world, later becoming active in conservation, studying forestry and wildlife management.

By Melissa Lamb
Last year’s nature camp staff, from left: Wood, assistant camp director Kat Habib, and counselors Dylan Dwyer, Julian Cordero and Tina Yirgu. By Melissa Lamb

A chance to explore

“I am REALLY, really sensitive to age-appropriate things,” Woods said of establishing content for each day’s activities for the 8-12 year old campers. “And again this is something that I think the schools neglect, that conventional education neglects: Children are not little adults; children are children, and what they really need, and ask for in many ways, at that age, is a chance to explore, discover things for themselves, to dream, to imagine, to be creative, to play, things like that. And that’s what we focus on. I don’t set out to teach them ANYTHING, except life lessons. Our motto for our camp is ‘Nature lessons are life lessons.’

“For example, I might teach them how to identify poison ivy. It’s a good plant to know,” Woods continued. “And they learn what a vine is, and they learn what a compound leaf is, and things like that. But the information-oriented things, I don’t teach a lot of that.”

Woods doesn’t teach conservation, at all.

“I believe conservation at that age, it can be fear-inducing at worst; at best it’s abstract, without a grounding in hands on, without really getting to know what we’re talking about first. This step is skipped in school,” he said. “Our camp sort of fills in the gaps, and provides a balance. We are not trying to indoctrinate the kids in any way, or steer them in any direction. We only have them for ten days, in ten days a year we can only do so much. What we do in that time is we, among other things, attempt to reclaim their childhood, rather than to skip all these wonderful awesome childhood experiences and go into information mode. And I’m not a parent, but I would think if I was looking at it from that perspective, I would want my child to make the most of those years.”

‘Every kid should go’

Erin Platt of Sperryville attended the Rappahannock Nature Camp in the mid ’90s from age eight through 12, and her son Jay will attend his second Singing Creek summer day camp this June.

“There is a huge importance to kids understanding nature, but not only that, it is crucial how much freedom you get, to roam and explore on your own, and then to come together to talk about what everyone’s learning,” she said. “You learn different perspectives from different kids, plus you gain information that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Last year was Jay’s first year. He went because every kid should go. It’s two weeks of hiking in the woods and playing in the river, and picking up bugs and learning about birds — and Lyt is one of the most amazing people that I know, so I’m happy to have my kid spend two weeks with him.”

Wood said that simply through exploration and careful observation of nature and wildlife — such as eight-inch salamanders at Frog Pond, or catching moths and butterflies to release into the Butterfly Tent to draw and describe, or learning the Coyote Walk, which teaches kids to keep their heads up to scan their surroundings while walking silently through the woods — his campers can develop lifelong habits and a deep appreciation for the county and world at large.

“We’re not trying to steer them toward a future that we envision, we want them to make their own future, learn to think for themselves and trust their own senses,” Wood said.

“Last year we did this thing called quiet time, where the kids — we go on a circuit walk — and the kids each pick a spot to sit for 15 to 20 minutes, observing nature,” Habib said. “And they can draw, or they can write, but that’s it. I remember sitting on my little perch and just watching the kids. Just seeing a kid totally enthralled by the pass of a dragonfly, you see them minutely focus in silence, and it’s a really beautiful moment. And after we do that, Lyt comes around playing his recorder, and we all follow in silence back to the path and to this central moment when we share observations. And I think those few moments are actually some of the most powerful — just completely turning off, but also turning on.”

Contact the Headwaters office for more information: 540-987-3322.