18 Aug 2017

Camp4Life: Greatness Outdoors

For at-risk students, a week in the forest teaches science, self-sufficiency and, above all, trust.

No TV. No cell phones. Sharing a cabin with a group of people you’ve never met. It would be a challenge for any teenager, but for at-risk students who are less socially adjusted, pre-camp anxiety is compounded. Carla, a Learn4Life student from Wilmington, California, explains, “It was nerve wracking for me coming over here. Who am I going to room with? I don’t know these people. What if they don’t like me?”

Despite their fear, 100 such Learn4Life students chose to trek out into the forest for a week to attend Camp4Life, a free program that teaches a STEM-based curriculum in hands-on, experiential lessons — combined with a healthy dose of team building and trust. Assistant Program Director Jonathan Hong explains, “Camp is so important for these students because they get to interact and form positive relationships with adults. And oftentimes, from what we’re seeing, that’s just something that most of these kids don’t have a lot of.”

A significant portion of students who attend come from unstable and low-income homes where they must work part- or full-time jobs and “grow up” faster than their peers. Abby Sipes, principal of Learn4Life, says, “We don’t see the same laughter and joy as you might expect from students this age. A lot of them have heavy responsibilities, so we wanted to give them a week in nature where they could learn in a more relaxed way — with wholesome interactions and positive feedback.”

It turns out, providing students with an opportunity to experience the natural world is becoming more important than ever, as outdoor interactions among young people continue to decline. A recent survey found that 70 percent of mothers in the U.S. recall playing outdoors every day as children, but only 26 percent of them can say the same about their own children. According to the American Camp Association, over the past 20 years, the time children spend outside has been cut in half. The effect is measurable. Neuroscientists have documented that the brain responds differently to urban vs. natural environments, and at least one study has shown a correlation between green spaces and decreased crime and aggression. The mechanism by which nature affects us is still being studied, but researchers believe that stress reduction plays a key role.

Chez, a Learn4Life student from Long Beach, appreciated the chance to make meaningful connections with counselors and peers. “We connected in several ways. We actually had to sit down during cabin time, and we shared a lot of background stories from our past.” Carla agrees that the team-building exercises made a big difference for her: “I’m one of those types of people who likes to do everything on their own just so that you can feel like you don’t need anybody. And I’ve learned that teamwork is really important. And that sometimes you need help. And it’s okay to need help.”

Studies show that adventure-based counseling and learning activities can lead to a significant increase in self-esteem and empathy, both of which can positively impact a student’s school performance. In addition, researchers find that spending time in nature rests the prefrontal cortex, leading to a boost in attention span, improved memory and higher performance on cognition tests.

It is still early in its inception, but the program already seems to be paying off. Sipes explains, “It’s only been a few months since camp, and already we’re seeing a difference in the group’s work and attitude at school. This was Camp4Life’s first year, and it was so successful that ‪we plan to offer it again next year.”



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Cale, Christopher. “A Case Study Examining the Impact of Adventure Based Counseling on High School Adolescent Self-Esteem, Empathy, and Racism,” University of South Florida, 2010.

Clay, Rebecca A. “Green Is Good for You,” American Psychological Association, Vol. 32, No. 4, 2001.

ACA and the Children & Nature Network Announce a Partnership to Connect Children and Families to Nature,” American Camp Association, Oct. 10, 2014.

Rickinson, Mark et al. “A Review of Research on Outdoor Learning,” Field Studies Council, 2004.

Williams, Florence. “This Is Your Brain on Nature,” National Geographic, 2016.

Worrall, Simon. “We Are Wired to Be Outside,” National Geographic, 2017.