Calling All Campers!

Plants and Bugs Day Camp, held at Oklahoma State University’s Botanic Garden, is for campers ages 9 to 12. Activities are focused on gardening, nature, and ”bugs.” Since temperatures soar past 100°F during the summer, activities occur both indoors and outdoors, depending upon the heat index. As part of a non-profit that only seeks to recover the actual cost, my colleagues and I search far and wide for a variety of fun and interesting activities that are free or inexpensive.

Here is a look at some of the avenues we pursue to find ideas for programs:

Junior Plant Scientist

Junior Plant Scientist (free at is a series of explorations kids can do at home, in a garden, and even online, with printable observation sheets covering 10 topics like plants and culture, plants in curious places, and plant explorers. Kids can even leave questions for a botanist to answer, and if all 10 explorations are completed, campers earn a certificate from the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Roundtable Programming

Curt “Moose” Jackson’s website ( and his email roundtables bring in ideas from camp counselors and directors from all over the world. In the past few years, we have downloaded hundreds of pages of ideas, and many fit right in to our camp focus. Examples of previous roundtable topics include nature activities, camp traditions, time-travel theme ideas, and unique camp activities. Submitting an activity to the email roundtables gets you a free copy of the compiled activities.

Pick A Theme

Each day at camp has a theme. Ideas for themes come from looking up online teacher lesson plans for history, geography, literature, etc., and selecting ideas that tie in to plants and bugs. Activities from the Garden Passport camp include making Greek headpieces from grapevine (real or fake) and eating a grape snack while reclining on cushions, making pomanders out of oranges and cloves (from Asia), and making catnip toys (from Italy) for the local animal shelter. At Harry Potter Camp, we make wands out of bamboo and fill them with tinsel (unicorn tail), colorful feathers (from a phoenix), google eyes (from newts) and other fanciful things, and drink Butterbeer (butterscotch syrup mixed into ginger ale). At Colonial Camp, we weave simple baskets from reeds or grasses and make potato or apple prints. Toxic Camp includes activities with plants previously considered poisonous (nutmeg, apples, lima beans, rhubarb, avocados, etc.). By having a theme, we tie seemingly random activities together and present them as a unit; themes also sell the camp (Who doesn’t want to go to Toxic Camp or Harry Potter Camp?).

Free Ideas

Another source of free ideas is advertisements for other camps around the country. For instance, from, there are two activities that are wildly popular with the kids:

  1. Paint-chip matching—Campers are given paint-chip samples (from hardware stores) and then they wander around the garden looking for that color in nature or on equipment.
  1. Flower-petal watercolor— Campers are given about 6 inches of painter’s tape and they then collect flower petals until the tape is full (naturally limits the gathering). Attach the full tape to a 2-inch-wide piece of watercolor paper, and then the fun begins. Use rubber mallets to smash the petal ”juice” into the paper to create a natural watercolor bookmark!

Many free educational activities are available from Ag in the Classroom, at both the state and national levels ( From the Oklahoma site, we use recipes for pumpkin pie in a bag, bread in a bag, and ice cream in a bag. We also use simple recipes from various sources to make healthy snacks (veggie-faced bagels, fruit salad, etc.). In searching for science activities on the Web, we discovered Wonderwise, a website highlighting women scientists and their careers. They provide free activities at Topics include pollen detective, vet detective, space geologist, urban ecologist, and more.

Catalog Concepts 

Art, craft, science, math, agriculture, and other supply catalogs often show finished projects that can be done with materials you already have, or that you can modify to fit your program. Sometimes just seeing the raw materials will spark ideas for camp activities. Using straws and yarn, we weave belts or bracelets; using yarn and sticks, we make looms in which to weave grasses and wildflowers; using Plaster of Paris, we cast animal tracks.

Food For Thought

Don’t forget the grocery store! Chop up some unique fruits and vegetables for a taste test (jicama, mango, kiwi, starfruit, etc.). Compare the taste of a variety of apple types. Make homemade applesauce. Using nuts still in the shells, see how many pennies it takes in a tin can to break the shell of different types of nuts (another wildly popular and noisy activity). Use fruit to dye cloth. Bowtie pasta makes great butterflies for bug art.

Go With The Flow

Campers in today’s world haven’t experienced all that kids did in earlier decades, and activities such as making mud pies are new and different to them. We went outside to gather soil for making adobe bricks (in ice cube trays), and an hour later the campers were still playing in the dirt! Let them be kids. Loosen up on the schedule and go with what the kids are having fun doing.

Get Creative With Critters

Here’s a little secret: Termites will follow on paper trails made with Paper Mate pens (only Paper Mate pens) because the ink has a scent that mimics a pheromone that termites use for communication. Another fun activity with bugs is to take maggots (raised as fish bait and available online) and put blobs of tempera paint on construction paper. Let the campers drop some maggots in each paint blob; as the maggots wriggle away, they will paint pictures! Even normally squeamish campers love maggot art!

If you want to catch bugs for a collection, or just to view them up close, you don’t need fancy nets or containers. Just grab a gallon-size, clear zip-type bag. Bees and wasps will fly up when you approach them, so hold the bag (open side down) and put it over the insect. This is also an easy way to catch nuisance bugs. You can throw the bags in the freezer for a few days as a free way to kill the bugs for a collection too! There is no need to invest in or expose your campers to hazardous chemicals that may trigger asthma attacks.

Start A Collection

These are just a few of the places we get ideas; the main thought is to think outside the box and use what you already have. Also, save egg cartons, toilet-paper tubes, and other free craft supplies. You never know when you’ll come across an activity that is fantastic (and happens to need 57 tubes per camper!). Speaking of tubes, tubes from carpet rolls make AWESOME rainsticks!

Shelley Mitchell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Extension Specialist with Oklahoma State University’s Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture in Stillwater, Okla. Reach her at