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    The Families Issue

    Getting an education in saving the planet at summer camp

    The experience has always been about the outdoors — now it’s also about sustainability, ecology, and even farming.

    Counting carrots at Chewonki Camp for Boys in Wiscasset, Maine.
    Counting carrots at Chewonki Camp for Boys in Wiscasset, Maine.
    Illustration by Andy J. Miller

    When Paul Mitchell of Bolton dropped off his oldest son, 6-year-old Sam, at Drumlin Farm Camp for the first time back in 2005, he had no idea how central the camp would become to his family’s summer routine in the decade to follow — or how much it would foster an interest in the environment within his kids.

    “We had been looking for a summer camp and a friend recommended it,” Bolton says. “Over the years, it has definitely influenced Sam’s worldview. The way he talks about farming and GMOs has been informed by his experience there.”

    Drumlin prides itself on the nature- and farm-oriented experiences it gives campers 4 to 18 on 206 acres in Lincoln. Home to both a wildlife refuge and a working organic farm, it’s one of 17 day camps run by Mass Audubon. Locations vary from mountain to sea, but all are dedicated to putting kids in touch with the natural world, says Becky Gilles, Drumlin’s camp director.


    “We create a place where kids can learn about and experience nature,” she says. “You see their faces at the end of the day — they’re hot, tired, and dirty . . . and you know those children really did something that day. Maybe they learned something or maybe they just had fun, but either way, that’s what we strive for.”

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    At Drumlin, campers help run the farm, pulling weeds, grooming animals, harvesting crops, even “mucking” stalls. The wildlife refuge offers chances to interact with injured animals such as hawks, turtles, woodchucks, owls, and geese. Older campers may remove invasive plants or do trail work.

    When lunchtime rolls around, the environment is at the fore. Audubon follows a “no-trash” lunch policy: Campers are encouraged to bring their lunches in recyclable containers and are not allowed to throw anything out. If they bring baggies or juice boxes, for example, those items go home with them at the end of the day. Gilles says kids grasp the idea that they are living lighter on the planet and carry those concepts with them as they get older.

    Sam, now 17, is about to embark on his 12th summer at Drumlin and his second as a counselor-in-training and says he enjoys working with the crops and the animals. “I love feeling like I’m a part of what’s going on there.”

    While not all camps make nature the focal point, time spent outdoors has long been a part of the experience. And in the past few years, the American Camp Association has noticed an uptick in nature, farming, and environmental education and programming at summer camps. Almost a third of the camps accredited by the ACA added a specific nature or environmental focus between 2013 and 2015; nearly as many have added gardening.


    “Camps have always been involved with nature, but now that’s on the forefront,” says Bette Bussel, executive director of ACA New England. “Camp is one of the few places where kids can still connect with the natural world.”

    In our technology-centered and hectic lives, parents and educators may struggle to get kids to put their devices down, get outside, or truly relax. Schedules can be so intense that kids have little chance even to decide how to spend their time. “Most of life is so planned out, but at camp, kids often need to make choices about how to spend their time,” Bussel says. “They also need to learn how to make decisions as a group.”

    A feathered friend at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln.

    As camps challenge kids to learn more about the environment, camp directors are incorporating sustainability practices into their facilities. At Chewonki Camp for Boys in Wiscasset, Maine, sustainability is reflected in the physical structure. Wind turbines, composting toilets, solar panels, and electricity-free cabins reduce the camp’s environmental impact, and campers get a chance to learn about how these green technologies work.

    “Most kids today are growing up learning about sustainability, but it’s a far-off concept for them,” says Garth Altenburg, director of Chewonki. “Here at camp, they’re living it .’’ Without electricity in the cabins, the kids retreat to bed at dark. “It’s primitive, adventurous,” Altenburg says. “They love it.”

    Like Audubon’s Drumlin camp, Chewonki incorporates a working farm, and campers are involved in growing and harvesting the food they eat there. They learn firsthand they can’t control the climate and that they must make do with what can be grown locally. “If it’s a particularly wet or rainy summer, or even a dry summer, the kids will see the effects in the cafeteria,” Altenburg says.


    At the end of each summer, campers are treated to a roasted chicken banquet in which they feast on the poultry they’ve been raising all season.

    Chewonki also offers wilderness travel expeditions such as a five-week sea-kayaking and boat-building program for 15- to 17-year-olds, who spend the first half of the program making their own kayaks. Then they set out in their vessels along the seacoast.

    The combination of wilderness travel, farming, and simple living at Chewonki is designed to show participants that their actions matter and that there are practical ways to incorporate sustainability into their lives, Altenburg says. “They start to see that their presence in the world has an impact and that they can be good stewards for the wilderness,” he adds. “They begin to feel they want to do their part — supporting the local farmer, cultivating the stewardship ethic.”

    Another option in Greater Boston that gives kids time on a working farm is the Trustees of Reservations’ new day camp at their Appleton Farms location in Ipswich and Hamilton. The first of six weekly sessions — for up to 60 kids ages 5 to 17 — will begin on July 11.

    The Trustees already operate a popular farm camp at their Weir River location in Hingham. Appleton Farms has been running vacation-week programs for years.

    “We knew there was demand. We have a ready population,” says Beth Zschau, engagement site manager at Appleton Farms. “The challenge was that we had to thoughtfully consider how to do it in terms of being a real working farm.”

     Older kids in the program will work closely with farmers and learn about composting, irrigation, and solar power. Younger campers will stay busy with a long list of farm chores. “Whether they are collecting eggs from the chickens or cleaning the bunny cages, the kids have fun with it,” says Zschau. “They roll up their sleeves and get dirty.”

    Sara Mason Ader is a writer in Hingham. Send comments to


    Illustration by Andy J. Miller

    > Alton Jones Camp

    West Greenwich,  Rhode Island

    Type: Coed sleepaway camp

    Service Project: For the past several summers, campers have participated in a government project to collect and record data on local coastal ecosystems.

    > Camp O-AT-KA

    Sebago, Maine

    Type: Boys sleepaway camp

    Service Project: Campers 14 to 16 years old receive language and culture training before heading off to Nicaragua to help support a sustainable agriculture project. 

    > Camp Pemigewassett

    Wentworth, New Hampshire

    Type: Boys sleepaway camp

    Service Project: Campers participate in two official counts of loons and butterflies, which are added to the data of hundreds of other volunteers across the continent for the scientific record. 

    Sources: American Camp Association, New England; camp websites