Leave No Child Inside: The priceless opportunity of the campfire experience

The last night at Camp Lone Oak is a time to reflect, share, and be serious around the campfire. (Photo provided)

The incense of campfire smoke beckoned me while the exuberant chatter of the faithful summoned the meeting to order. I am invited to the sacred circle, a tradition of the last night at Camp Lone Oak. It is a time to reflect, share, be serious if the occasion is right and many times laugh…or so I am told.

I have been here 20 summers, but have never joined the gathering. Tempted to attend on this particular evening, I, however, once again turn up the trail away from the throng. I have had my “circles” under an evening sky just as perfect, and bright memories of camp friendships. Although welcome, I’ll walk on and let the young and their guides celebrate life with a special moment at camp that belongs only to them.

Thousands of summer campfires burn this same night. There is a pattern, immensity and connectedness in knowing that this experience, just like the stars, is happening all over the world. What are the children saying as they breathe the fresh air, listen to the owl and swat away a few mosquitoes? For some, it could be the thought of the bull’s eye made at archery, of a best friend who talks in her sleep, of learning a love of hiking, or discovering the joy of purple hands left behind from tie-dying a T-shirt. For another, it could be the moment when the leader said they could be an artist and the realization that maybe they could.

We can all be thankful there are places like this camp where positive expression is still spoken. The Rockford Park District’s Camp Lone Oak is one of many available in the Four Rivers region, including the traditional summer day camps at the Rock River Valley YMCA, Camp Winnebago, Byron Forest Preserve, Severson Dells Nature Center, as well as the district’s Nature Quest. These are the camps from which children return home wearing that triumphant smile that comes from playing outside and getting a little dirty. The sacred circle of camp widens to the daylight hours, and nature shows up to inspire with fawns to view, windy prairies to catch a cool breeze, butterflies to watch and swamps to explore.

It does not get any better. We need only to get the word out and apply all available resources to involve more children. Where cost is a factor, some of the providers offer scholarships or fee assistance. It is a matter of inquiry, and well worth the effort for such a priceless opportunity.

I started with a campfire, and with that, I will end. What happens out there during the carefree days of summer is no less than life-changing. Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO, shares this about his campfires in the book Camp: “Years later, I found myself running a network television division, and then a movie studio, and now an entire entertainment company. But much of the success I’ve achieved can be traced to the direct and metaphorical lessons I learned in building those campfires. I can hardly think of an aspect of my life that wasn’t positively affected by my camping experiences.”

Katie Townsend is program manager of Environmental Recreation and Education for the Rockford Park District. E-mail her at katietownsend@rockfordparkdistrict.org.

from the August 5-9 issue

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