Opting Out(side) at Overnight Camp

There’s no experience quite like camp. Unplugged time in nature reaps dividends for kids in ways that grow and flourish over time. And there are numerous opportunities for kids in this area to return to the great outdoors this summer, with Northern Kentucky’s Camp Ernst ranking near the top.

Photograph courtesy Camp Ernst

Camp Ernst Executive Director Elizabeth (Eli) Cochran knows the benefits of reconnecting kids to nature and loves to help people choose the right option for their child, given the variety of summer camps and programs offered through the YMCA. And who knows? Your kids might just inspire you to get outside more, too.

What makes Camp Ernst such a Cincinnati gem?

Camp Ernst was founded in Burlington by the Covington Y in 1928. We’re now owned and operated by the YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, and our campus is home to a lake, two creeks, two pools, and 50 buildings. But what really creates the magic are the thousands of campers and counselors who spend summers here making friends, building confidence, and connecting with nature. The camp is so close to town and yet is maintained as a summer sanctuary to disconnect from our screens and to connect with each other.

What are your most popular summer programs?

Camp Ernst has nine weeks of day and overnight camp. All of our daily activities—including zipline, swimming, archery, canoeing, and fishing—are open to campers enrolled in each of the various camps. There are “add-on” activities like horseback riding available, too.

In terms of accessibility, we can work to adapt camp to many different abilities and customize those adaptations, knowing that each child is unique. Sometimes the best approach is to start with day camp or a shorter session in order to familiarize campers with the environment.

You attended Camp Ernst as a child, and clearly your experience had a profound experience on your life.

As a camper in the 1980s and counselor in the ’90s, my positive experiences influenced my work today and inspired me to want to continue to steward this amazing environment of belonging for kids. Being a mom, however, has probably informed my role as executive director the most; I have a daughter in high school and twin sons in college, and seeing firsthand the way their camp friendships and experiences shaped them, I’ve approached my leadership of camp through that lens, too. I believe camp can be an important partner with parents in raising confident, independent, curious, empathetic young people. Camp kids learn independence and social-emotional skills like friend-making, listening, and empathy.

Technology is a tricky area for parents to navigate; the #parentguilt over technology is real. How do you respond to that?

Camp is a time to be unplugged, though when kids are at home devices can help them connect to nature. There are lots of apps that offer nature identification and interactive scavenger hunt-type activities. Children have a natural sense of curiosity, and caregivers can encourage that by asking questions, modeling delight and wonder at surroundings, and practicing creative storytelling about interesting observations. Building habits toward awe and wonder at a younger age can help children stay engaged with their environment as they grow.

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