At Whole Earth Nature School, each week brings in a new crop of kids and a new camp theme. Over the course of the summer I worked Wizard camps, Winnie the Pooh camps, a Star Wars camp, a Ninja camp, and an Oregon Trail camp. Each week I assisted a different lead instructor and learned a lot by observing their teaching techniques, games, and style. While there were a lot of actual relevant nature skills being conveyed: such as poison oak identification, edible plants, tracking, camouflage, shelter-building, hiking, stealth and awareness, a lot of the education was exploratory and driven by the children’s own curiosity. Especially for kids with behavioral difficulties who may have a harder time sitting still all day in classrooms, watching children exploring their natural environment and getting excited about nature was such a treasure to watch and facilitate.
One challenge that comes to mind was one week with a group of 4 to 6 year-old, we had reached Thursday. It was already a difficult group with some sensitive children and one boy on the Autism spectrum who had a hard time with emotional control. This day was also overcast and supposed to thunder, and among children, both fear and small injuries are catching. Pretty soon most of them were convinced they would be struck by lightning (it had not started raining at this point). And because of their scattered energy, literally every child began getting injured. They were smacking their heads on hand-rails, skinning knees, getting blackberry scrapes, all manner of disasters. The lead instructor had dashed to the storage container to grab more band-aids and told me to lead a game. It started to drizzle, a girl fell down, scraped her knee and started howling, another child was weeping about the rain, and a third boy just literally ran away from me. It was one of those really? moments where I just had to take a second to breathe and deal with one thing at a time. Since there were other camps going on nearby I enlisted another instructor’s help to herd back the fleeing child, got some spare band-aids from my backpack, and moved everyone out of the rain. Nothing trains your patience and calmness under pressure like screaming children. I learned overall that when a child acts out it’s always because they have a need they can’t express well.
Some glowing moments that made me want to devote my life to children: Once when I spontaneously led an Oregon Trail-themed version of Mafia (a storytelling-based murder game) the camp director came by and was so impressed (thank you actor training) he made me write down the rules I had improvised so that other instructors could use the game in the future. Another favorite moment was doing camouflage and stalking with the Earth Ninja crew (ages 6-8). They got all covered in mud, sticky-weed, and fern fronds and went as silently as possible through the woods to earn a visit from the Master Ninja (the camp director camouflaged and hidden in the bushes dispensing Ninja wisdom). My favorite week was a Winnie the Pooh group, ages 4 and 5, because they were so good at working together and such intrepid hikers. We spent the whole week trying to track down Pooh Bear. I often had to sneak ahead and leave clues like a scrap from Pooh’s red shirt, or opening the jar of sun tea they had made for him out of edible plants and spilling half of it to look like Pooh had been there. Finally by the end of the week, we found Pooh Bear in the shelter we had built him, and had a picnic with cake and honey in the woods. Deceiving children is truly magical.
I’ve really loved working at Whole Earth. The approach they take to teaching is so refreshing and flexible, and they put such an emphasis on gratitude and creativity, and working outside and with children this summer has truly been the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had.
Experiences like Rose’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez