First Person: Learning About Good Food is Child’s Play at Nature’s Farm Camp

by Tim Magner, guest contributor

Tim Magner is a co-founder, with Elena Marre, of Nature’s Farm Camp, a five-day, four-day summer camp that provides children with hands-on experiences about food and nature. Magner has entertained, educated, and inspired kids in a variety of capacities for more than two decades, including as a camp counselor, a children’s book author, and operator of Truck Farm Chicago. He advocates for exploratory play and project-based learning. He says he has studied and spoken on “efforts towards creating an awesome food system, including major shifts in public policy and a reduction in the influence of money in politics.”

“Teacher, please don’t make us go back inside,” pleaded a 3rd grader with a toothy smile. His buddy looked over to me and added, “Farmer Tim, please don’t go. We don’t want it to end. Um, can I pick a little more mint and anise?” I nodded and as we packed up the biodiesel-powered mobile garden, the student leaned in and grabbed another couple of stems. We pulled out of the school parking lot and drove away.

Nature's Farm Camp

The founders of Nature’s Farm Camp have extensive experience teaching children about how to grow and cook their own food.

No matter where Truck Farm Chicago went, kids had smiles on their faces and more nutrients in their bodies when we left. It wasn’t that they liked my lousy vegetable jokes, but rather what we allowed them to do: explore the world around them and discover their connection to it — largely through food.

They were outside, in freezing rain and in the blazing hot sun. They observed their surroundings, then they sprinted to the fence and back and felt their hearts race. They dug their hands in the dirt because that’s what kids do.

They drew gorgeous pictures to see who would get the last strawberry. They smelled rosemary, chewed on raw scallions, and then freshened their breath with chocolate mint. They felt the tassels on corn and observed bees in action, and they knew pollination in a way that books can’t teach. They pulled up potatoes and then picked four varieties of tomatoes. One high school student remarked, utterly amazed, “I hate tomatoes. Always have. But yours, I love. This is crazy!” She admitted she wouldn’t have tried them if hadn’t been for the blindfold.

The kids loved to cook, especially after harvesting ingredients. We joined forces with The Kids’ Table and cooking became our most popular programming.

I love to cook, too, but The Kids’ Table knows how to cook, and they know how to do it with kids, even picky eaters. From their work with tens of thousands of kids the last 8-plus years, they have more than 500 kid-tested recipes. When Elena Marre, founder of The Kids’ Table, and I were leaving a school a couple of years ago, I said, “How can we do more of this?” Elena responded, nonchalantly, “Let’s create an overnight camp where we immerse kids in awesomeness.”

The Stars Align

Elena and I searched for a small, old farm within a two-hour drive of Chicago. We traveled Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, and at first nothing quite measured up to our vision of a perfect site for a kids’ overnight camp.

But last fall, on our way to southwest Wisconsin to tour more properties, we stopped in to see our friend Nance Klehm. We’ve both worked with Nance over the years and know her expertise, but we didn’t get to the end of her driveway before we were drooling at the prospects.

This site has it all: traditional red barn, huge kitchen garden, hoop house, mushrooms, fruit and nut trees, and countless varieties of other wild edibles to forage. Not to mention, there’s a beautiful creek, restored prairie and woodland, fire rings, and grassy areas for the perfect camping grounds. It’s the antidote to a conventional farm. Nance is actively building soil, sequestering carbon, restoring habitat, and growing loads of nutrient-dense food.

Nature's Farm Camp

Children participating in Nature’s Farm Camp this summer will have a beautiful natural environment in which to learn and play

Our timing was fortuitous. Nance had just finished hosting a Mycology Conference, where she safely welcomed 250 people on her property for an extended stay. Not only did Nance sign on as host of Farm Camp, but she agreed to be a resident teacher —which is fantastic because she has more knowledge about ecology in her pinky finger than anyone I know has in their whole body. She teaches internationally, kids adore her, and here she is willing to partner with us to launch Farm Camp!

Camp Details

Nature’s Farm Camp is a co-ed stay-over summer camp for kids ages 8-13 in Orangeville, Illinois, about 125 miles northwest of Chicago (and just south of the Wisconsin border). For five days and four nights, kids will immerse themselves in outdoor adventure, largely centered around great food.

Nature's Farm Camp

This farmstead in Orangeville, Illinois, owned by sustainable farmer Nance Klehm, will host Nature’s Farm Camp this summer.

We offer four sessions during the last two weeks of July and the first two weeks of August. The food we don’t grow onsite will come from farmer friends, for example, Breslin Farms, a producer of organic grains and beans that is located in Ottawa, Illinois.

The days will be filled with movement, and fueled by good food and great fun. Counselors guide a variety of activities allowing and encouraging campers to be as self-directed as possible.  Campers get to…


* plant, tend to, and harvest food for the kitchen
* forage for wild greens, edible mushrooms, and berries
* feed and care for small farm animals, such as chickens, rabbits, and bees


* learn delicious recipes and practical culinary skills
* plan, prepare, serve, and share snacks and meals
* engage in fun and friendly cooking competitions


* practice wilderness skills, such as fire-building and shelter-building
* discover the mysteries of the woods, creek, pond, and prairie


* make up-cycle craft and art projects
* learn basic life skills, such as woodworking and sewing


* engage with fellow campers in games of capture the flag and talent shows
* enjoy bonfires, storytelling, and s’mores
* take pleasure in personal time for drawing, reading, daydreaming, yoga, and meditation

If you know of any parents who care about immersing their kids in outdoor adventure and the Good Food movement, please share.

And come meet us to enjoy food and nature-focused activities at two upcoming events, geared toward kids ages 7-13, during Earth Week coming up soon.

On Saturday, April 18, Chicago’s Green City Market will host Nature’s Farm Camp and Family Fun for Earth Week. This event will take place from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, during the last indoor farmers’ market before Green City opens its outdoor season nearby on May 2.

We’ve scheduled an Open House on Friday, April 24 from 3:30-6:30, hosted by The Kids’ Table at 2337 W. North Ave. in Chicago. We hope you can join us.

Also take part in the Connect & Click Contest by visiting the Nature’s Farm Camp website, and click here for our Facebook page.

Love & Peas,


Photographs provided by author.

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