Bay Area Environmental Camps
In fact, it’s the kids who don’t spend much time outdoors studying wildlife, plants and dirt that Rene Tucker, camp coordinator for Crissy Field Center, likes to draw to the center’s environmental camps.
“I know the kids who are into the environment are going to show up,” he says. “But we love to have kids who are not interested in environmental science. We want to reach out to kids who aren’t into dirt and birds and trees.”
Summer camps that promote an interest in environmental studies and natural sciences are thriving in the Bay Area. There are camps focusing on everything from environmental science to wildlife to sustainable farming.
According to studies, environmental education programs offered in schools have been shown to improve standardized test scores and increase students’ critical thinking skills. Top that with all of the known benefits of kids being outdoors, and you can’t go wrong with nature camps.
At Crissy Field Center (www.parksconservancy.org/learn/youth/summer-camps/) in San Francisco, summer camps focus on lowering our carbon footprint, Tucker says. The two-week day camps are designed to give children in-depth experiences in the area’s urban environment and local national parks. The camps serve kids entering first through sixth grades. Prices range from $649-$749, and scholarships are offered.
Younger campers do more simple activities such as exploring the outdoors and focusing on their senses, Tucker says. The third- and fourth-graders get very hands-on with activities, including exploring solar power and making environmental public service announcements. Both camps go on a field trip once a week to a local national park where they hike and explore.
Junior Rangers on Patrol, which are fifth- and sixth-graders, go to various sites every day, hike, learn about habitat in detail, play games, help with restoration projects and do one overnight camping trip.
There are many things about Crissy Field’s camps that make them special, Tucker says, with location being at the top. Also, the partnerships the center has with agencies in the area make the camps unique since park rangers work with campers when they go on field trips.
“We’re in the beautiful Presidio, one of the most beautiful parks in the Bay Area,” he says. “We’re rich in resources. We have the bay, trees and a staff that is very enthusiastic, and we have a lot of synergy here.”
Sea Life Science
If your kids love the ocean and sea creatures, the Marin Science Institute (www.sfbaymsi.org/marinecamp.html) in Redwood City offers a variety of weeklong camps for kids in kindergarten and up that focus on making science fun. All of the camps are correlated with the next generation of science standards for schools, says Felicia Van Stolk, marine camp manager. The price range is $415 per week for the youngest campers to $1,300 for a four-night camping trip for teens.
“What makes our camps special is how hands-on and involved (campers) are, especially with the live animals,” Van Stolk says.
The youngest campers, called the Plankton Pioneers, are introduced to marine science through hands-on activities, crafts, games, songs and stories. They explore different groups of animals, marine habitats and food chains with the highlight of the week being a trip aboard the Marine Science Institute’s research ship.
The SF Bay Explorers camp, for kids entering second through fifth grades, focuses on the San Francisco Bay Estuary and allows campers to discover the science and creatures of their own backyards. These campers explore habitats around the bay on field trips and aboard the institute’s ship.
In the Ocean Explorers camp, for second through fifth graders, kids learn about the Pacific coast and the world’s oceans by studying live animals and going on fields trips to the coast and aboard the research vessel.&pagebreaking&For kids who are ready to delve a little deeper, Naturalist Camps teach campers how to be naturalists and explore the different fields of marine science. Field trips and a trip aboard the research vessel take kids behind the scenes as marine biologists. These camps are for children entering fourth through fifth grades who have already attended Ocean Explorers or SF Bay Explorers.
The Underwater Investigators camp, for sixth through eighth graders, is a challenging week of scientific investigation in which campers explore marine habitats and adaptations with activities on land and by boat and canoe. The week includes a sleepover at the Marine Science Institute.
Monica Bach, 11, of Redwood City has attended all of these camps and says learning science in a classroom doesn’t compare to her experiences with the Marine Science Institute.
“I’ve gotten a close-up look at sea life. I’ve gone canoeing. I’ve dissected a squid. I got to feed leopard sharks and pet them. I got to sleep overnight on a boat at Angel Island, and I made so many friends,” she says. “Every day I go home and tell my parents how much fun I had because I love this camp so much.”
Project Discovery is designed for high school students who want to study marine biology in the field. These campers use scientific equipment to sample fish, invertebrates, plankton and water aboard the research vessel. Then they spend four days camping along the coastline.
Kyrie Vesely, 17, of Menlo Park loved her experiences at the Marine Science Institute so much that she now volunteers at the camps. She teaches and helps the younger kids with crafts and other activities. She’s hoping her experience will help with her plans to study conservation.
“I love watching kids learn new things and seeing that spark in their eyes,” Vesely says. “They learn about the Bay and how it has developed over the years. They learn about what is happening to the marshes, how to stop pollution. They are becoming aware of their environment and what will happen if we keep developing and not acknowledging the wildlife here.”
The Wild Life
If you child has a wild side, Sulphur Creek Nature Center’s wildlife camps (www.haywardrec.org/129/Sulphur-Creek-Nature-Center) may be perfect. Nestled in the Hayward hills along a creek, this education and rehabilitation center takes in 600 to 1,000 injured, sick or orphaned animals year round. The 10-acre park also includes trails for hikers.
“What makes us special is we are in our own 10-acre park surrounded by oak trees,” says Deborah Varner, lead naturalist and Wildlife Camp director. “We keep our camps small so campers have a lot of one-on-one time with the counselors. The kids are outside almost all of the time, and they have up-close meetings with animals.”
The center offers a variety of camps for kids ages 3 ½ to 14. Prices range from $146 to $203 per week, with an additional $10 fee for nonresidents.
The Polliwog camp, for 3 ½- to 5-year-olds, allows little ones to meet animals, do crafts and play games. Each week, there are different themes, such as animal voices and day and night animals.
Grasshoppers camp, for ages 5 to 7, offers more animal-based learning, hikes, nature exploration and information about the rehabilitation center and how Sulphur Creek helps animals.
Barn Owls, for ages 7 to 9, focuses more on school science curriculum, teaching kids about topics such as camouflaging defenses and animal coloration.&pagebreaking&Varner says both the Grasshoppers and Barn Owls camps reinforce what kids are learning in school, and they incorporate the California State Standards into the camps’ curriculum.
In the Critter Care camp, for ages 7 to 11, kids get more in-depth time with the animals. They learn a lot more about animal rehabilitation, get to see procedures being done on animals and get to help a mock-injured animal. They also learn a lot about caring for animals and how to clean their cages.
Sulphur Creek’s newest camp, Junior Biologists, for ages 10 to 14, focuses on the biology of plants and animals and ecosystems. During the four-day camp, kids can dissect and learn about different plants and animals.
The Bay Area has great options for kids with an interest in organic farming.
Located in the Los Altos Hills, Hidden Villa (www.hiddenvilla.org) offers camps throughout the summer for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Campers learn about everything from organic farming to animals to wilderness to social and environmental justice. The farm is also surrounded by 1,600 acres of wilderness with hiking trails for campers to explore.
Day camps for kids entering kindergarten through fourth grades allow campers to meet farm animals, explore wilderness trails and learn about life cycles in the garden. Some of the activities include swimming, cooking, face painting, singing, storytelling and arts and crafts.
A five-day sleep-away camp for entering fourth- through fifth-graders lets campers live like some Native Americans and enjoy meals in the outdoors. These campers also learn cool facts about the local Ohlone tribe and enjoy arts and crafts, archery, swimming, campfires, hiking, caring for farm animals and organic gardening.
In the 12-day resident camp, fifth- through seventh-graders stay at the farm’s hostel with younger campers sleeping in cabins and older campers sleeping under the stars. They do everything from organic gardening to archery to skits to ice cream-making.
The Farm and Wilderness Camp lets kids entering eighth through 10thgrades live at Hidden Villa’s primitive Hollow Oak campsite for nine days and go on a three-day backpack trip to Black Mountain. These campers work on team-building skills and caring for farm animals.
Older campers entering 10th through 12th grades can explore the Santa Cruz mountains on the Bay to Sea backpacking trip or join the Farm Academy to experience each stage of agricultural production.
Camps cost between $355 for younger camps to $2,550 for overnight backpacking trips. Scholarships are available.
“Our campers are given the opportunity to engage in the fabulous resources we have here,” says Nikki Bryant, director of Hidden Villa’s summer camps and youth programs. “We make sure we have activities for all energy levels.”
In west Marin, off of Highway 1 between Muir Beach and Stinson Beach, Slide Ranch (slideranch.org/camp) offers camps focusing on sustainable farming for ages 5 to 18. The camps cost from $410 to $435 per week, and scholarships are available.
Younger campers are introduced to organic gardening, participate in simple cooking projects like making cheese and learn how to take care of farm animals including goats, sheep, chickens and ducks. Older campers get to participate fully in ranch life, practice principles of organic gardening and animal care and undertake stewardship projects. They also investigate native plants, animal habitats and ocean ecology and go for some challenging hikes.
Slide Ranch offers a junior camp counselor program that gives 14- to 18-year-olds the opportunity to be in a leadership role, assisting the teacher-in-residence and being a role model for young campers.
“What parents appreciate about our program is that kids have the experience of exploring and connecting with nature and playing outside,” says program manager Julie Hartman. “Campers are feeling inspired and getting dirty and playing in ways that kids don’t play much anymore.”
Teresa Mills-Faraudo is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.