Belonging To a Place as a Way of Learning: Unicamp of Ontario and the Interdependent Web

I am in line to buy firewood at Silent Lake Provincial Park where we are camping with friends. The wood will cost $5, and I will take it back to our campsite and we will have a roaring fire with our group. The story is a straight line towards a nice fire.  The next day we’ll go home since this is a park we visit once a year.

I ponder about another campsite where my family has spent most summers since our kids were born. We have a seasonal campsite at Unicamp of Ontario, an intergenerational nature retreat that is part of the Unitarian community. Located in Dufferin County, just north of Shelburne, Ontario, Unicamp is within the UNESCO Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve. There are 50 peaceful acres of meadows, coniferous and deciduous forests, marshes, streams, and two beaches on a 2.5-acre spring fed pond. Our firewood story there is a much different, longer story, that begins when my oldest son was a toddler. He loved to watch the Unicamp youth chop wood. We would set up a little folding chair and snacks and he would sit for hours fascinated with the wielding of the ax, how the wood splitter worked, and of course the “Heroes” who were cutting the wood.  Throughout the years he enjoyed community campfires at Unicamp with people of all ages, some friends and others who were new. It is not our campfire but the community’s campfire where songs were sung, and intergenerational conversations had. We were held by the stars, the warm flames, and the community pile of wood. Year after year my son saw the woodpile dwindle through the summer and magically regrow itself at the start of the next summer.

One winter, two trees fell at our campsite and in the spring we helped Terry, the operations manager, drag them to the wood chopping area. My son said, “Old trees die, and we use them for wood and then new trees grow”. I remember one work-weekend, my family was tasked with recycling an old surfboard into a roof for one of the woodpiles. We see this strange wood-roof that looks like it is going to sail off on a wave each time we walk the path to our tent.  When my son was eight, Terry taught him how to use the wood splitter, under supervision of course, and with safety goggles and gloves! When my son was ten, he spent three hours splitting wood. He made us wait to go to the beach so he could finish his pile. On the way to the beach, he told me with great purpose that he was going to work at Unicamp maintenance as soon as he was old enough. Through tutelage by many elders my son has also become a great fire builder and keeper.  This fire-story is a circle with many points. It is community-based intergenerational learning in action. It is learning that occurs when you belong to a place.  

Unicamp of Ontario
The seasonal camper program to which my family belongs is one of many activities that occur at Unicamp. There are also spiritual conferences/workshops, church services, family-oriented camping weeks with intergenerational programing, kids and youth camps, as well as pay by night camping. Those who are part of the Seasonal Camper program pay for a site each year, which they use from May to October. Generally, people keep the same site and may store their trailer or other items over the winter. 

A question came up in the Unicamp community as to whether the seasonal camping program helped the camp fulfil its mandate. Unicamp is a registered charity, with a mandate to:

“Organize, operate and maintain camps with related services for Unitarian religious training of children and to provide, operate and maintain facilities for church and leadership conferences and seminars.”

Having a six-year-old and a ten-year-old who are growing up as seasonal camper kids, I witness how having dependable access to an intergenerational nature-based community has taught my kids so many skills. In this paper I seek to understand this lived experience through the lens of intergenerational, community and place-based learning models. I do so to help my Unicamp community ponder upon the question of whether the Seasonal Camping Program helps Unicamp of Ontario to fulfill its mandate.  This paper will have three parts. The first being an introduction to the the theoretical underpinnings of intergenerational place-based community learning.  The second part will be based upon interviews of seasonal camper caregivers and parents, kids, and adults that grew up as seasonal campers at Unicamp. The third will build on the first two sections and will look to the future delving into how to maintain and expand the learning the seasonal camper program can offer kids.

Community based intergenerational Learning
In their articleCommunity-Based Learning: Engaging Students for Success and Citizenship”, Melaville, Berg and Blank describe how community-based learning occurs when kids develop problem solving skills in the context of their actual lives and communities. Rather than education occurring through an intense focus on content or subject matter, the focus is on creating conditions in which the kids achieve to the best of their abilities. When learning is connected to a place that they value, kids become engaged, whether it be learning how to maintain the community wood pile or how to build a friendship. Melaville, Berg and Blank believe that to grow up into an engaged citizen, children must practise being active citizens in a place with issues that affect them.  Kids are more likely to retain and transfer knowledge when their learning applies to their life experience.  It is a type of education that teaches people not how to make a living but how to live.

A real living-community naturally involves all ages, but this is not always the case in modern life. In the article “Intergenerational Learning and the Contribution of Older People”, Newman and Hatton-Yeoh state that as society modernized, the tie between the younger generation and the older generation has weakened. This has created a gap in passing-on of knowledge. They believe that this gap can be filled when organizations create intentional non-familial intergenerational communities that gives children access to all ages, especially elders. This enables kids to benefit from Intergenerational learning that has been the informal vehicle for the transfer of knowledge through time. The benefits are reciprocal, with both the young and the elder benefiting from meaningful connections that strengthen the whole community.

Shana Durand, in her article “You’re Never Too Old to Play: Intergenerational Learning Programs, states:

Intergenerational learning is not a new concept. In fact, the informal passing down of culture and knowledge between elders and youngest members of a family goes back further than documented history. In some cultures, the relationship between elders and children remains as strong today as they always have, but it’s not always the case. An intergenerational program is a planned intentional interaction of different age groups, infant to elderly in a variety of situations at a level that provides close communication, sharing of feelings and ideas and cooperate activity in meaningful tasks.

My son saw the work and team effort it took to maintain the community woodpile. He enjoyed greatly the intergenerational music-filled community fires that were the result of that work. After witnessing the work of making firewood in his toddler years, he then stepped up to take his place in the community effort to build up the community firewood pile and tend the fire. He did all this with examples and guidance from nonfamily community youth and elders. He experienced the sense of community this gave him. This learning lives in my son’s body and I believe he is therefore more likely to take this circle of learning and place it on other things in his life. I have already seen him start to teach the community firewood lessons to his younger brother through modelling this behaviour. Some day soon, I hope he will volunteer to do the dishes without me asking because he understands his place as an active citizen in the family dinners we enjoy.

Newman and Hatton-Yeoh also write about “social capital”, which they define as aspects of social life that induce people to act together.  The concept of social capital can be traced back to author Lyda Hanifan who oversaw the creation of numerous rural school communities. He described social capital as:

Those tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families [groups] who make up a social unit.” 

We can think of social capital as common experience and shared values in a group that enable individuals to trust each other so they can work together. At the provincial park there was no “social capital” surrounding firewood. It was a financial transaction. At Unicamp, the community firewood pile involves “social capital”. Our common experience and shared values is the reason a pile of wood has meaning that is able to teach a child.

The guide “What is Place-based Education and Why does it Matter?” states:

We’ve all experienced the power of place: those moments when we’re immersed deeply in experiencing the world around us and what’s happening there is real and meaningful. Learning in these moments is organic and visceral.  There’s much to learn from the place we inhabit… yet formal learning experiences that leverage the power of place remain the exception not the rule.

What happens when we belong to a place? What changes occur in us that can maximize learning? In my son’s firewood story, learning only occurred because the community firewood pile had a physical place where it existed, and that place is Unicamp. This place was not somewhere we might visit a few times a year, but a place where he has formed long-term relationships.  It is a place he returns to year after year. A place where he belongs.  A place that is a part of him and that he is a part of.

The guide “What is Place-based Education and Why does it Matter?”  describes how place-based learning is an immersive learning experience that connects children to local landscapes as the foundation for better understanding their world. It is a type of learning that encourages and builds upon their natural curiosity. It is an “anytime/anywhere” type of learning that leverages the power of place over the power of technology. This can be such a powerful tool in a world that increasingly pulls our children towards technology at the expense of presence in the real world. When we use place to teach we are teaching children how to be present in their lives.

We know a place through how we touch it. Psychiatrist and clinical researcher Dr. Stuart Brown is the founder of the National Institute of Play.  He describes how Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory once hired researchers to uncover the common denominator in their most creative engineers. They wanted to identify traits to look for when hiring. They found that the engineers who had worked with their hands in their youth, building or fixing or making things, were adept at creative problem solving. The ones who had not played with their hands were less likely to be creative thinkers. At Unicamp, my son was taught how to use his hands… splitting wood, building and tending fires through the many people he interacted with. By doing so, he is possibly learning to think creatively.

Melaville, Berg and Blank describe how community-based and place-based learning is enhanced through natural settings. They explain that immersion in environmental settings with limited structure capitalizes on children’s curiosity about the natural world and the social relationships they find there. Nature becomes the framework within which kids construct their own learning away from technology or being told what to do by adults. In this context, the adults become a support frame and examples, rather than didactic teachers. This helps children build an understanding of who they are. It is instrumental in forming their identity.

In summary, my son’s seasonal camping experience at Unicamp had three conditions mentioned in the learning models I described above:

  • community and social capital
  • access to intergenerational influences
  • belonging to a dependable nature-based place

These conditions illustrated one of the Unitarian principles for him. It taught him “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part of”. For him, these are not just words written on the wall of the dining-hall at Unicamp. They are a lived experience that he learned from a woodpile and the community and place surrounding that woodpile.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul. London: Penguin Books.

Durand, S (2017). You’re Never Too Old To Play: Intergenerational Learning Programs. Educa Web

Hanifan, L. J. (1916). “The Rural School Community Center”. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 67: 130–138. 

Melaville, A., Berg, AC., and Black, MJ. (2006). Community-based learning: Engaging students for success and citizenship. University of Nebraska, Digital Commons.

Newman, S., and Hatton-Yeo, A. (2008).  Intergenerational Learning and the Contribution of Older People.  Oxford institute of aging.  Aging Horizons. Issue # 8, pages 31-39.

Unicamp of Ontario 2020 Brochure

What is Place-based Education and Why Does it Matter? Edulnnovation and Teton Science School

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