Evaluation WoesteLand: 50 years of youth nature conservation camps

WoesteLand is the national youth working group of IVN, the Dutch institute for education on nature and the environment. For the last fifty years, the working group has been organising activity camps in nature conservation areas for young people between the ages of 12 and 30, where they take part in volunteer conservation work. The WoesteLand group particularly wants to offers participants opportunities to experience and enjoy nature together. WoesteLand’s activities are supervised by enthusiastic young volunteers.

This report is based on a research study of the long-term effects of participation in WoesteLand’s summer camps on the well-being of participants and their attitude to life. The study also examined the motives behind the participants’ decision to take part in the camps over the past fifty years. The findings show that the participants greatly enjoy their WoesteLand experiences, which is a strong argument in favour of the camps. The participants’ enthusiasm contradicts the views of those who claim that today’s young people generally take little interest in nature. The WoesteLand activities offer not only enjoyment of nature but are also a social experience. The participants take a keen interest in nature, and continue to do so in later life. This is reflected in the types of education and profession they choose, in their lifestyle and in the way they raise their children. As such, their enthusiasm persists into the next generations. A relatively large proportion of the participants later join nature conservation organisations, making the WoesteLand camps a useful breeding ground for volunteer conservationists, including those working for IVN itself. Thus, WoesteLand is a highly valuable asset for IVN.

Study design

The study was carried out by Alterra and the Wageningen UR Science Shop, and consisted of several components. Group interviews were held at a reunion of summer camp participants on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of WoesteLand. These interviews yielded much information about the experiences of summer camp participants. In addition, a questionnaire was sent to about 300 participants to assess whether the WoesteLand experience had had a lasting effect on their later lives. Finally, a sample of young people, including both WoesteLand participants and non-participants, were interviewed to identify motives that influence their decision to participate in the summer camps or not.

Long-term effects of WoesteLand camps

WoesteLand proved to have been important for nearly all participants, some of whom even called it a life-changing experience. The effect is roughly based on four dimensions: personal growth, social network, making environmentally conscious choices and a career in ‘green’ professions. Personal growth refers to the educational character of the WoesteLand camps. Some participants had developed from insecure, shy and withdrawn youths to self-confident personalities who had no problems standing in front of an audience and capturing their attention. This had also helped them in their professional careers. The skills they learned at the camps, and the passion for working with people they developed there, had induced them to choose career options where these characteristics would be useful. The camps had also been important from a social point of view. They had resulted in lifelong friendships, and a considerable number of participants had met their life partner there. Environmentally conscious choices refers to opting for environment-friendly behaviours in life, and for some it also meant attaching less value to material issues.

Reünie Woesteland (workshop)

Most of the participants felt closely connected to nature and had adopted a lifestyle in which nature and the environment are important factors. On average, they spent much time outdoors. Compared to the Dutch population as a whole, a much larger percentage of them were members of conservation organisations. Quite a few of the participants reported that the WoesteLand camps had influenced the choices they had made in terms of education and profession. Most of them had adopted a mostly environment-conscious lifestyle. Virtually all respondents reported that WoesteLand had influenced the way they raised their children.

Memories and outstanding experiences

In the participants’ memories, the WoesteLand summer camps were characterised by pleasure, conviviality and fun. They had felt secure and appreciated there. They were among like-minded people, which had a great impact on some of them. They had felt that, for the first time in their teenage years, they were able to be themselves and were accepted for who they were. Together with the joy of working in a natural environment at unique locations, this had made their participation in the summer camps a powerful experience. Many participants recalled having had unforgettable times at the camps. The conservation work at times resulted in events that became peak experiences, through an intense sense of unity with nature. Certain events involved sudden changes from feelings of anxiety and tension to joyful feelings, turning them into overwhelming experiences.

Motives for joining

The main reasons participants mentioned for joining the WoesteLand camps including the desire to learn more about nature, to work outdoors, to be physically active, to get to know new people and to find like-minded people. Some also gave more pragmatic reasons, such as it being a cheap holiday. Many respondents reported that their parents had been the driving force behind their first participation, but on the other hand, a WoesteLand summer camp was for many of them the first opportunity to go on holiday without their parents. The reasons they gave for joining a second or subsequent camp were partly different. The idea of finding like-minded people became even more important, while the desire to ‘live by my own ideals’ and ‘because my friends were going too’ had also become more important. This shows that the friendships established at the camps became important reasons to go on participating in them.

Relations between motives and experiences

Participants who were motivated by a desire to learn about nature appreciated a well-run organisation and well-trained supervisors. This relates to a sense of doing useful work, having unique experiences in nature and a sense of satisfaction afterwards. The motive of being physically active was positively associated with the value attached by respondents to doing useful work and feeling tired afterwards. The motive of having a cheap holiday was positively associated with the value respondents attached to doing things they were not allowed to do at home. Four subgroups can be distinguished within the group of WoesteLand participants:

  • shared ideals: like-minded people meeting and making an effort for nature;
  • fun and pleasure at a reasonable price: making friends for life;
  • being one with nature: joy of working outdoors;
  • a combination of being among like-minded people and the joy of working outdoors.

How to effectively promote the camps among potential participants

The findings of this study can be used to improve the effectiveness of communication with potential participants, by utilising the information that was gained about the memories and experiences shared by previous participants. The findings suggest various options to attract new participants:

  • Use the networks of friends and relatives of present or previous participants;
  • Identify opportunities to use word-of-mouth more effectively for PR purposes (a.o. social networks);
  • Establish collaborations with other organisations operating in the field of environmental and ecological issues, in order to reach new audiences;
  • Draw more attention to the WoesteLand camps at popular youth festivals and other events attended by the target group;
  • Send clear messages about WoesteLand’s profile and offer clear information about the activities;
  • Offer a variety of activities that appeal to different types of potential participants, e.g. camps that focus on working outdoors, education, leisure or other aspects;
  • Emphasise the main ‘selling points’: the ’sense of family’, the joy of working outdoors with others, the unique locations, and perhaps even the aspect of a cheap holiday;
  • Show that WoesteLand camps not merely enable participants to experience nature, but also represent a major social experience;
  • Communicate the finding that the camps provide overwhelming experiences and lifelong memories;
  • And finally, do not forget to address the parents, as some of the participants were first made aware of WoesteLand by their parents.