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From generation to generation, kids develop many differing interests and priorities. But everyone, no matter when or where they grow up, can enjoy learning about and appreciating nature.

Over the past two decades, hundreds of kids have passed through summer camp at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, where they spend a week hiking in the woods, looking at plants and bugs under a microscope, creating science projects, and having fun swimming, singing, and making new friends.

Instructors Melissa Barnett and Carolyn Sanders started the tradition 20 years ago with about 50 kids for an initial three-week camp. The two women have been teaching and guiding youngsters to have a regard for nature and the environment ever since.

“I truly believe that Nature heals. With the emphasis on stewardship, and caring for ourselves and nature, we promote our peace pole curriculum, and art in the park. For children it can be the anecdote for the over-scheduled kid, the kid who sits too much, the anxious child, and the one who just can’t get enough magic of being in the forest,” Barnett said.

Much of the program has stayed the same over the years. Everyone participates in a morning circle to check in and make sure they are feeling comfortable and safe. Sanders and Barnett let the kids know what the plan is for the day. For the most part, kids are given choices as to what they would like to participate in, and there are very few things they must do, Sanders said.

Everyone normally goes on hikes. After a hike to Bale Grist Mill on a hot day kids can cool off in the swimming pool.

There are also three or four art projects going on at any given time. During the day the kids are mostly in groups, but also get free time to “float,” and choose to follow what interests they may have, Barnett said.

“We really work on the buddy system and have three rules: Be kind to yourself, be kind to each other, and be kind to your partner,” Barnett said.

Nimbus Arts is a fiscal sponsor and also provides art projects for the camp, and Cal Mart provides healthy snacks for the kids, who come mostly from Napa, St. Helena, Calistoga, Angwin and Middletown, and occasionally a foreign country if their family is spending the summer in Napa Valley.

The camp is all day, Monday through Friday and this year there were 37 students ages 6-12.

“It’s all long day. We wear everybody out including us,” Sanders said.

Finding meaning in nature

Campers get inspiration from various experts who visit and share their knowledge, like Peter Ozorio, the ‘Bug Whisperer’ from Napa County Mosquito Abatement. Another scientist from Napa County Resource Conservation District brings little microscopes to engage the kids in nature that the naked eye can’t see. Another recent visitor was from the county’s Canine Search and Rescue team.

Trees and animals in the park are protected so the kids aren’t taking flowers or leaves or stepping on bugs if they can help it, Barnett said. They learn respect.

“The parents know their kids are getting something meaningful,” she said.

Barnett and Sanders’ own kids have also gone through the camp. Sara-Sita Sanders was at the camp with mom as a 2-year old, and 20 years later is now one of the camp counselors.

Other kids have returned to volunteer their services, and that’s a touching measure of the program’s success, Barnett said. A few have returned to serve as lifeguards at the pool, one as a naturalist, and another former summer camper will soon be studying environmental science in college.

“One of our philosophies is to engage them by doing art projects and playing and hiking in the park, getting to know it like their back yard, but also to expose them to different careers for when they get older,” Sanders said.

Please silence your cell phones

As the years go by, one of the most profound changes Barnett and Sanders have observed is dealing with cell phone usage, and getting kids to put them away.

It’s more difficult during teen camp to get them to part with the phones, Barnett said. Constantly looking at their phones takes them away from experiencing life and creates anxiety.

“Last year we had a hard time getting some to put them away. There was a lot of negotiation,” Barnett said. “It becomes a bit of an addiction. Especially with teen girls. They are (overly) concerned about how to present themselves (to others).” However, “once they were able to tune out their phones, they recognized how much more they got out of the camp. They realize (with the phones) they are chronicling their lives instead of living them.”

Returning to nature to nurture

Over the years Barnett and Sanders have also noticed a “nature deficit” that everyone, not just children are experiencing.

“We’re not going outside as much,” Barnett said, and kids are generally not as fit as they used to be. Although instructors take them on the same hikes year after year, those hikes are getting harder for some kids to do.

“Just like adults, they’re sitting so much. It was surprising to recognize that in children,” Barnett said.

Kids can also get too wound up, or these days are dealing with stressful issues such as wildfire-related events. The camp offers resiliency training where calming techniques are woven in where appropriate.

Barnett, who is also a yoga instructor, said the camp’s motto, “is also about caring for ourselves, each other, and nature.”

The camp is also about having fun. The last day of camp culminates with “Wacky Olympics” where kids get to bob for donuts hanging from tree branches, and dress up for a parade, and a show with skits, jokes, and songs they have learned throughout the week.

The overall point of the camp is to get enjoyment out of nature and to encourage families to return to the park.

“I think we’ve done that,” Barnett said. “We hear it from different generations. There are a number of families that continue to come back to the park.”

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You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com or 942-4035.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.