Prove your humanity

On a warm Friday afternoon in June, Pittsburgh’s Frick Parks was filled with the sounds of laughter from children exploring the outdoors. The majority of the noise stemmed from the kids engaging in a made-up play of sorts outside of the park’s entrance near the Frick Environmental Center

Shortly after, the group of kids dispersed from the week-long summer camp organized by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. The nonprofit runs summer camps for children in 1st through 8th grades.

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This camp, called “Survival Camp,” introduced 16 years ago, focuses on teaching basic survival skills, fostering environmental interactions, and nurturing a sense of community among 7th and 8th graders. 

Patty Himes, one of the camp’s main counselors, has been here since its inception.  

“It’s essential for our health as human beings to head outside, to get outside, and to have a relationship with nature. And that’s what we’re trying to build here,” she said.

Before being a counselor, Himes was a middle school teacher in the Pittsburgh Public School system for seven years. She was approached by a group of counselors that proposed the idea of a survival camp.    

“They really wanted to show kids how incredible it is to spend time in the woods and to be able to make a fire and, you know, to take a hike and kind of be able to navigate your way through the woods,” she said. 

Dough rolled on sticks over a small campfire.

Middle schoolers cook bread sticks over a campfire at Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Survival Camp in Frick Park. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Among the crowd of campers emerged 13-year-old Violet Plecity, who talked about her experiences over the past week.

“It’s really kind of a laid-back camp. There’s a lot of free time, but there’s still activities if you want to do something, but you can kind of choose how you want to spend your days and what you want to be doing,” she said.

The camp taught skills like starting fires, collecting water from streams and whittling spoons, one of Plecity’s favorite activities.

“We’re all so happy to have been done with our one project that we’ve been working on for so long. And then we get to eat ice cream with it. And every year, that’s just one of the best parts,” she said.  

In an age where American teenagers, on average, spend up to nine hours a day on screens like cell phones and video games, connecting with nature can feel like uncharted territory for some.

For Plecity, a Pittsburgh native, getting in the habit of being outside helps her escape her comfort zone. 

I’m never as excited to go outside, and I have to, like, get myself to go outside,” she said. “But then when I’m outside, I’m always finding something to do and, and I’m always happy being out there.

Ryan Malkin, a Squirrel Hill native and one of the counselors helping run the camp, is a fanatic of the outdoors.  

“I love being outside. I always have,” he said.  “I think the house that I lived in had a really big backyard, and I would spend hours back there.”

Now, he loves walking in Schenley Park, scouring for frogs, climbing trees, rock climbing, and listening to music. In his sixth year of helping operate it, the 20-year-old described what it was like to be exposed to a similar survival camp growing up. 

“[I felt] a little bit more adult, to be able to start a fire and [be] a little bit more confident about being outside,” he said. 

Three kids are sitting on the ground making small rafts

Campers at the Survival Camp learn how to make rafts. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Malkin helps the campers to discover their own sense of comfort in the great outdoors. 

“It can be fun and refreshing to see it through their eyes. I’ve been here a lot, and I know all the trails, but they don’t,” he said. “Seeing them get excited and realize that they actually really like nature and like to make friends with each other and stuff. [It’s] one of the great joys of being a counselor to me.” 

Himes does recognize that children who are not used to being outside might feel initial hesitancy.

“We are not focused at all on forcing them to enjoy nature. We let them be afraid, and we stand there with them. We let them know that it’s okay to be afraid, and we hold their hands,” she said. 

As far as her biggest takeaway from the camp, Himes said it’s the kids that ultimately make it special. 

“It’s really gratifying to watch these students build skills, and we want them to be able to be proud of something, and it helps them to kind of center on something and focus on something,” she said. “And here, the more comfortable you are with being outside, the more you want to go out.” 

For Plecity, stepping away from screens and embracing the natural world has opened up a world of possibilities. 

“You never really get bored when you’re outside. And when you do, it’s like in a good way. Like you can just lay down or relax and just be outside. But there’s always another thing that you can do,” she said.

Inspiring Conservation in Unconventional Ways