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The Way Nature Nurtures

Outdoor ed group working on activities
Outdoor ed group working on activities
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Camp has ended for the summer.

The leaves are changing and the air is chilly. But camp is not quiet. YMCA Camp St. Croix has entered a second season of sorts. It bustles with small groups spread across the field. There are shouts of laughter and lots of activity as each group works to complete the assigned task.

Olivia, a 7th-grade student who is at camp for a three-day Outdoor education program with her school explained, “Our school has come out to do this, like, forever I think. You learn about the wilderness, do some team building and get to stay in cabins with your friends. It’s education and a bonding thing. Everyone goes every year and it’s awesome.”

The Camp St. Croix outdoor education program may seem like it has been around “forever” but actually, the program began 40 years ago, which is only a fraction of the camp’s 115-year history. Outdoor education takes kids out of the classroom and gives them real-life experiences in the outdoors. Schools with k-12 students from across Minnesota and Wisconsin send their kids to camp to get to know their classmates and teachers in a new way, developing relationships while also learning about science, nature, weather, animals, geology, and so much more. Camp Executive Director Katie Haas explained, “At Croix, we want youth to get familiar with and curious about this place. From there, we help them build an understanding of how diverse regional environments connect, intersect, and work together.” Program Director Luna Anderson Duggan added, “my goal is for these experiences to light the spark of joy and bring in as many people as I can.”

From concept to creation to curriculum

In 1983, John Duntley (director 1983-96) was hired as the executive director of Camp St. Croix. Summer camp programming, as well as weekend conferencing, were both successful, but mid-week was quiet at camp during the school year. John had established a year-round outdoor education program when he worked for the Green Bay YMCA, so he was prepared to bring the same type of program to Croix.

The first step to creating an outdoor education program was to hire a program director. Patty Mueller had been working in Alaska for the Fish and Wildlife Service and working for YMCA Camp Widjiwagan during the summers. She applied for a year-round position at Widjiwagan, which hadn’t worked out, but then Widji’s director, Bob Rick (director 1974-89), gave her resume to John. Patty was excited to have the opportunity to build an outdoor education program from scratch, so she took the job and got to work.

For Patty and John, the first thing they developed was a philosophy, centered on care and respect for the environment, the equipment, and for the people. They wrote curriculum based on the guiding principles, with a goal of moving kids from awareness to appreciation to action.

Once the curriculum was developed, John and Patty’s two biggest challenges were finding staff to carry out the program and to connect with schools who would attend this new offering.

Once Patty was able to build relationships with school principals, she recalls the program “taking off like wildfire”. The program grew and by 1988, Patty’s position transitioned to full-time outdoor education (prior to that she had also been the program director for summer camp).

Over the following years, facilities were improved to accommodate the needed indoor classroom space, outdoor group gathering spaces were expanded, and the prairie area was cultivated to be used in programming.

John believes that camp “wouldn’t have survived, if not for outdoor ed.” Summer camp is important, but a facility can’t close down for 9 months a year. “Outdoor education helps keep camp relevant all year round.”

John shared a memory of former Camp Director Jerry Manlove (from 1949-57) visiting camp a few years into running the program. It was a week where there were a lot of outdoor education groups. He was astounded to see the programming going on and had tears in his eyes, telling John that was something he had dreamed about when he had led camp. For John, that realization was really meaningful, and he was happy to be part of the evolution of camp.

Evolving with the times

Luna Anderson-Duggan was hired as the outdoor education program director in 2023. Luna was a Camp St. Croix camper from the ages of 13-16. She was part of the King Leadership Camp, a camping program that provided scholarships to kids identified by teachers as having leadership potential funded by the Peter J. King Foundation . She had an amazing experience and was grateful to have the opportunity to attend camp, noting that she wouldn’t have been able to do so without that scholarship . Returning to Croix to be on staff felt like coming full circle and she is excited to lead this program.

Much of the outdoor ed program looks the same as when it began 40 years ago: getting kids outside, working in small groups, exploring the environment around them, and kids building relationships while learning about the natural world. The big difference now is that kids are disconnecting from screens and devices and learning how to establish boundaries with technology.

Luna is continuing the program that has been so successful for decades, but she has additional goals that center around equity in a variety of ways. She is focused on building relationships with schools that haven’t been able to participate in the past.

With the curriculum, Luna said, “people have a variety of learning styles and we want to make programming that teaches in multiple ways. We also want to make it physically equitable, building the program to be more inclusive of bodies with differing abilities.”

“When I was a camper, Camp St. Croix gave me my first experience in equity and now it’s my goal to do that for others. As the program moves into the future, I want it to not only be accessible to all, but that equity is naturally integrated into everything we do.”

The central themes will forever remain the same

When asked about his favorite memory from the early days of outdoor ed, John shared a story about a student who was quiet and never spoke up. His group was working on an outdoor survival activity, discussing what you would do if you were lost in the woods. This student suggested building a snare to catch a rabbit using a fishing line and a stick. His classmates were fascinated and he showed a skill that no one knew anything about. His teachers were blown away because they had never seen him take the lead or be so confident.

For John, it was a reminder of how important it is to get kids into a different element and give them an opportunity to show off skills or knowledge that might not be relevant inside a classroom.

Forty years later, Luna has similar stories from today. One of her favorite things is watching kids arrive at camp, nervous, complaining, and acting “too cool” for camp. But once they get into the activities, their attitudes shift, they start having fun, discussing what they’ve learned, sharing different sides of themselves, and by the end of the day, she can see a switch. Putting kids into a different environment brings out a new side of them, and that is part of the power of the program.