Noozhawk's Summer Camp Guide isn't limited to camps in Santa Barbara — like participating in any good summer camp, it's important to get out of your comfort zone, so we went on a search for camps outside of Santa Barbara County to see what the Central Coast has to offer.

We didn't have to look far to discover Camp Natoma, a popular destination for Santa Barbara campers for almost over 76 years. 

We sat down with Emily Zbin, director of administration for Camp Natoma, to learn more about its history, values and what keeps campers coming back year-after-year. 

Camp Natoma

Question: What is the name of your summer camp and what is its mission?

Answer: At Camp Natoma, youth connect with the natural world, positive role models, opportunities for creativity, and each other.

Q: Describe the activities involved in Camp Natoma.

A: We are a traditional – rustic summer camp, and what that means is that our most unique feature is that campers actually sleep outside under the stars.

We are located in Paso Robles, so it’s warm during the summer, typically in the 90s during the day – and it never, or rarely, has any precipitation

Campers are arranged into groups – just like a cabin group but instead of cabins, there are cots with mattresses and the kids bring a sleeping bag. Everyone is arranged underneath big shady oak trees, since we are also in an oak valley, so it’s like a cabin but without the walls and roof, and instead, they are outdoors looking up at the trees and stars.

Campers are usually outside the whole time they are at camp. The only building we have is the dining hall and it’s screened in.

During the day, the kids have choice activities as well as all group activities. There’s archery, swimming, hiking, arts & crafts, music, lots of nature-exploration type activities, team building, and then we also have a leadership training program for our high school students.

There's also a swimming pool so the younger kids receive swimming lessons and do instructional swimming each day. We also have free play time in the pool as well. It's a very popular amenity!

Campers take part in a of outdoor activities including archery, hiking, swimming and more.
Campers take part in a of outdoor activities including archery, hiking, swimming and more. (Camp Natoma photo)

Q: What is the age range for children to take part in Camp Natoma?

A: They have to have completed first grade – so typically around 7 years old, and then we go all the way through ninth grade. Our 10th- and 11th-graders can apply for our high school leadership program, which we call our Counselor-in-training program. 

Q: Does the leadership program happen at the same time?

A: It’s the same time, they are a cohort – so they come for a minimum of two weeks per summer. Since it’s a leadership-training program, they do leadership-training activities and practice their skills by leading different activities with the kids.

Q: What goals do you have for kids participating in Camp Natoma?

A: We want campers to try new things, we want them to be creative and we want them to have a connection with the natural world.

Q: When was your camp or program started and what was the inspiration for creating it?

A: Camp Natoma was founded in 1941, so last year was our 75th summer!

We were originally founded by Camp Fire Girls. Camp Fire Girls is now co-ed, but when it started in 1941, it was a girls-only organization, and the inspiration was to get girls outside and doing things outside of the home. In 1941, that was super progressive and awesome to think about.

We are proud that not a lot has changed since then — we still sleep outside, we haven’t modernized in that there is no cell services, no WiFi, there’s no ATVs. Kids are involved in the community and learn how to live in a social group with great role models like our staff and older campers.

We are also open to all youth – you don’t need to be part of another program to attend the camp. Anyone can come to Camp Natoma.

Camp Fire is still around today. It's actually 107 years old. It operates as an all-inclusive youth development organization that focuses on community service and helping youth find their spark or passion in life.

Q: What can parents expect their kids to gain from participating in Camp Natoma?

A: It varies, depending on their age, but overarchingly, they’ll gain a sense of independence. The younger kids really gain self-reliance. I think the older kids gain self-confidence, teamwork and communication skills because they are spending their whole day doing social games and activities.

It's a break from technology and video games – they really come home appreciating the value of friends and social interaction and of course the immersion in nature.

Q: What is the best part about Camp Natoma in your opinion?

A: My favorite part is being outside all the summer with an incredible group of people, the staff and the kids included.

Q: Describe what makes your camp unique and worthwhile.

A: The "unique" factor, I would say, is that they sleep outside under the stars.

But what’s "worthwhile" about our program is that once you go to Camp Natoma, you’re a part of the Natoma Family.

Whether you’re able to come for one session your whole childhood or you come back every summer, you become part of the family; you remember the friends you made, the staff that taught you new things. I think it’s that relationship with a really caring community that makes it worthwhile.

Q: In what ways is your camp or program educational?

A: It’s educational in terms of our nature program. We do a lot of informal instruction – I also come from a teaching background – we try to immerse them in nature and teach kids how to ask questions. When they start asking questions, and the keyword word being wonder, it means they are wondering about why things are happening in the natural world.

Usually that means they are going to be more keen on learning science when they go back to their classrooms.

All of the games that we play aren’t just games to have fun, they are games that build creativity, critical thinking, collaboration skills — all of those are 21st century skills that employers and colleges want to see.

Q: What else should parents know when deciding whether to send their kids to Camp Natoma?

A: Camp Natoma is accredited by the American Camp Association, which is an an independent nonprofit body that verifies what camps are doing.

Just like schools can get accredited, camps can be accredited as well. Whether a parent is looking at Camp Natoma or any other camp – especially a sleep away – you should look at who is verifying this camp is safe.

I think "camp" nowadays has a very broad meaning in our society. Using the word camp doesn’t actually verify anything about what the organizers or the company is doing, to make kids safe. 

So when parents are looking for a summer camp, whether it be Natoma or any other camp, they should should ask questions like what are the hiring practices, are the staff getting background checked, are they first-aid certified, what’s the retention rate, what are their emergency procedures, how do they manage risk? Are the programs they're serving their campers developmentally appropriate? If they are serving food, who is inspecting and making sure the food is safe? Does the health department inspect? Are they accredited? Is there someone else telling the parents that this is a safe place? Is there a greater organization or certifying body?

I think asking those questions is important for the safety of our youth. 

I’d recommend that all parents look at the American Camp Association website. There’s a directory of camps online, and lots of resources for finding the camp that fits their child best. Not every camp is a good fit for everyone, but looking at those resources is a good way for parents to figure out what is best for their family.

When sending your kid to a summer camp, it’s important for them to know what to expect, and that they have accurate expectations for the program — whatever it might be. Take your kid to the camp's website, let them look at the pictures, watch the videos, if they have an open house, go to it.

Knowing what it’s going to be like when they get there reduces a lot of the anxiety for both the kid and the parent when they get there. 

To register or learn more about Camp Natoma, visit their website

One of the most popular parts of Camp Natoma is the 25-yard swimming pool.
One of the most popular parts of Camp Natoma is the 25-yard swimming pool. (Camp Natoma photo)

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