Lyt Wood and I have been sending messages about nature sightings back and forth for years. Recently, we got into discussing the evolution of Rappahannock Nature Camp, a summer day camp Lyt founded in 1986 and continues to serve as the director.
In 2016, the camp went independent as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and became Rapp Nature Camp (RNC). Last year, it added a teenage (12-16) and an adult (“Perennial Camper,” or “PC”) session to the camp’s traditional sessions for children (8-12). Wanting to learn more about how RNC has evolved, I visited Lyt recently at the camp, which is south of Sperryville at Singing Creek, along the Hazel River.
He and I quickly got deep into the weeds in discussing the effect of technology and other modern influences on nature education. He stressed the camp’s approach of avoiding technology and directly observing nature, forming conclusions from these observations. The camp’s stated mission is “to allow individuals, especially children, to discover for themselves the wonder and beauty of the natural world, and to understand what it means to be a part of a community of living things.”
This approach also extends to other aspects of life, Lyt says, as reflected in the camp’s motto: “nature lessons are life lessons.” The camp’s activities are almost all outdoors and are focused on “community building, nature observation, and respect for the natural environment and its inhabitants,” according to its website. (Look for more about our discussion of the philosophy behind RNC in a future column.)
As I’ve heard from campers and their parents over the years, the camp’s approach is well-received by kids. According to Lyt, parents have been amazed that their kids come home each day eager to talk about what they’ve learned at camp. But does this approach work for teens and adults?
Asking the teen campers — all graduates of the children’s sessions — what they wanted to do in camp last year, Lyt says he was surprised to learn that they wanted to continue with the activities they experienced in their previous camp sessions. But they also wanted to add some that were more challenging, perhaps with more structure.
Unlike the sessions for younger campers, the PC session consists of a series of expeditions. Five are offered this year:
- A hike to see birds and trees, including a large stand of paper birch and “all kinds of oaks” at Neighbor Mountain, Shenandoah National Park
- A nature walk and tree-identification class at Quaintance Ridge, on Eldon Farm, Woodville
- Birding, including viewing different species of swallows nesting, in the meadows of Shenandoah River State Park
- Tree identification and pond exploration at the RNC site
- A hawk watch, and telescope viewing of the sun and moon on Red Oak Mountain, Woodville
Last year, the PC session presented the biggest challenge, Lyt says, and in ways he didn’t expect. While the younger campers were eager to follow instructions, the adults — who were used to more autonomy — were not as compliant. And with busy lives and more responsibilities, they were also more likely to skip sessions or come late or leave early.
Wanting to make the new sessions work, Lyt is adding to the teens’ curriculum while building in more flexibility for the PCs. The latter will now pay the full tuition for all of the session’s expeditions, each of which will serve as a standalone learning experience, but can choose to attend any or all of them. They are also welcome to come late and leave early. As with all sessions, financial help is available for those who need it.
One thing that won’t change for is RNC’s general approach of experiencing and observing nature without technology or other sources of information getting in the way. To that end, the camp has a few guidelines for PCs to get the most out of the experience: leave dogs at home and apps in the car, and carry a field guide and a notebook in your pack. The notebook is for recording and drawing what the campers see. Lyt reported that last year’s PCs said following the guidelines really enhanced their experience.
The children’s session has been full for awhile, but the teen and PC sessions still have room. The camp also participates in the annual plant sale at Waterpenny Farm, in Sperryville. This year RNC will offer fig trees, along with pollen and nectar plants, that are grown at Singing Creek and give a demo on inoculating logs with shiitake mushrooms. (For more details on the teen and PC sessions, or to register, go to rappnaturecamp.org or call 540-987-9530.)
While much of what I’ve learned about nature has come from direct observation, I’m interested in learning more about the fine points of RNC’s methods, so I signed up for this year’s PC session.
© 2019 Pam Owen