"Will it bite me?" is one of the most frequently heard phrases at Audubon Day Camp, at least for the first few years. After that, the question becomes, "If we see a snake, can I catch it?"
The evolution of comfort is strongest in the kids that have been coming for years. They feel not only at ease in nature, they feel a sense of familiarity. Kids thrive on structure and routine and when they've been catching snakes and petting snails and holding millipedes for six years in a row, it becomes second nature.
The goals of Audubon's day camps are to the get kids outside, teach them a little about nature, and get them comfortable with the natural world. Whether it's building peep houses in the woods, jumping into ponds for turtles, or playing camouflage in the fields, the experiences are ones that might shape their environmental ethic in years to come.
Alexis Berry holds a common whitetail.
Niko Pannes holds a leopard frog.
Ashley Carnes is not afraid of snails.
Maddie Schlick and Nikki Falcao, covered in mud.
And it seems to work, better than just about anything else we do. We could tell hundreds of stories of individual kids whose attitudes we have watched change over the years. A young camper may tear through the woods, fields and ponds with little regard for the wildlife whose homes are underfoot. He may beat trees with sticks, handle frogs or snakes fairly roughly and want to keep everything he finds. By his third year at camp, he cautions the other campers about placing salamanders back exactly where you find them. He gently releases tiny toads and spring peepers after a brief observation. He shows a real interest in new scientific studies, such as dragonfly surveys and the like.
This year, one of our junior counselors will attend Audubon camp for her 10th consecutive summer. She spends a month each summer at her grandma's house in Lakewood, but the rest of the year in Florida. She claims to love Audubon camp because, as she put it, "There is no mud in Florida."
Nikki Falcao attended Audubon camp as a child and reveled in the green, green, green habitats of the sanctuary, quite a change from her home in Florida. When she reached her teenage years, she graduated to Teen Treks, an Audubon Road-trip camp that takes students to local areas of natural interest - a gorge, incredible rocks, trails for hiking. Nikki still comes to camp as a volunteer Junior Counselor, giving back to the kids and helping to instill that sense of wonder for the natural world.
After camp, at the Friday open house one year, the kids wanted to take their parents to the "camouflage field." This is a field where we play a modified hide and seek, but the idea is that the kids sit in the field and whoever is "it" has to walk only along the edge of the field and see if they can find them. The parents good naturedly followed us to the field. I gave them instructions to turn around and face one way while their children ran into the field. I counted to 10, told the parents they could turn and it was hilarious. The shocked look on parents' faces was more than enough but then one said, "Oh my God, they're gone!"
Sure enough, the kids had literally disappeared. The adults just started giggling in disbelief. The confidence and comfort it takes to run into a field and fling yourself to ground with the grasshoppers, spiders, frogs and dragonflies is what we're aiming for. We did find everyone, just to reassure you.
Visit our Web site for more information about camp at http://jamestownaudubon.wordpress.com/programs/daycamp/. Some sessions are full, others still have space. If you are thinking of registering, call first to ask about availability. Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road off Route 62 between Warren, Pa., and Jamestown. Call 569-2345 for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is the camp counselor (and full-time naturalist) and Jennifer Schlick is program and camp director at Audubon. They love camp, too.