bats at halloween

This summer has brought some changes to our summer camp routine, but it has been a great learning experience for us as educators. We started the summer with take home camp kits for families, and we were given the green light for some small in-person camps in July. We would like to take a little time this month to show you what Heaven and Annette have been doing to expose the next generation to the wonders that the natural world holds, educate them about local wildlife, and expand their appreciation of its impacts on us and our impact on it.

Our first camp of the summer was Snake Camp with 2-4 year olds. Per CDC guidelines we only had 10 people total in the camp, with 4 campers and parents. However, even with small group numbers we still made sure to have a fun filled time. To start Snake Camp off right, we presented two different live snakes to our campers. Though some campers were less than impressed with our scaly friends, others were happy for the experience of seeing a live snake up close.

After the campers got a good look at the live snakes, we went on a small hike to look for “snakes” around the study pond. These pipe cleaner snakes may not have been as wriggly as the live snakes, but our campers enjoyed searching for them around the pond. Once all our pipe cleaner snakes were found, we headed back to the hay barn to create some snakes of our own. With homemade playdough in hand, the creative side of our campers got to shine during our last snake camp activity. Each camper was able to make a playdough snake and decorate it however they chose. At the end of camp, the newly made snakes went home.

Our second and third weeks of camp were Junior Naturalist Camps. Children ages 8 to 12 were able to spend four days immersed in some of the activities naturalists get to do on a regular basis. They learned how to prepare for a canoe trip, the necessary items for a canoe float, basic paddle strokes, and how to canoe safely. They also learned how to rescue themselves and others – just in case they ended up in the water. The students also had the chance to use bows, atlatls, compasses, maps, GPS units, and other tools – primitive to present day. They had the opportunity to start a survival fire with flint and steel, and when that didn’t work, magnesium strikers. They finished off the week with some fishing (unfortunately we didn’t catch any keepers) and cooking a meal over a fire. Even on rainy days, all activities took place in the outdoors at Pioneer Ridge Nature Area. We stretched their outdoor minds, taught them some new skills, and allowed them to work as a cohesive group to solve problems. I wish I could have looked at what they wrote and drew in their nature journals at the end of each camp day.

With the last week of July, came the last week of summer camps. Our final camp of the summer was Arts and Patterns in Nature camp for 5-7yr olds. This camp focused on all the different patterns, colors, and sounds of the natural world and art that can be made from things found in nature. To start off, our small group of campers made their own nature journals to keep track of what they found or did in camp that week. Next, we helped each of our campers make their own small turtle out of popsicle sticks and yarn. After the turtles were completed, we headed out along the paved trail to see if we could find a place where our turtles would be able to use their colors to camouflage. One of the turtles hid really well, and it took a while for the kids to be able to find it. Talk about good camouflage.

The next part of our camp was all about natural dyes. We took a small hike and harvested Black Eyed Susan and wild Indigo to teach the campers how some plants can be used to make natural dyes. Our campers helped us strip the leaves off the plants and waited while they boiled to produce dyes. We prepared a few other natural dyes beforehand, and let the campers use those dyes and the ones they helped make to dye their own bandannas.

On the second day of camp, our campers found pictures from nature magazines and we took a hike through woodland and prairie trails talking about how different colors and patterns aided in camouflage. The campers took on the task of finding where the animals in their pictures could or could not camouflage, matched colors, and even found some of the same animals that were on their cut outs. To end the second day, we taught the campers to make mud paint, and even let them paint a picture with their nature made paint.

The final day of Arts and Patterns in Nature camp started off with a creek stomp. As the campers explored and splashed through the creek they searched for different colors and patterns that could be found in a creek. Collecting colorful and well patterned rocks along the way, we found many animal tracks, insects, a toad and an artist conch mushroom that led to many talks about patterns found in nature. Using the rocks that they collected from the creek, the campers made and decorated their own stepping stone. The last day of camp ended with making pine cone bird feeders, a game of Predator/Prey and one final entry in their nature journals before we said our goodbyes.

We hope those few campers that got to participate had a great time, and we hope those that missed out, will be able to join us next year. We have some ideas to change things up for next year, and we look forward to more campers joining in the outdoor education that will be offered. If the situation allows, we will be offering an overnight camping and canoe trip for teenagers.

We would also like to remind you that the nature center is open regular hours at this time, and a travelling snake exhibit can be found on the bottom floor until this fall. A new swan exhibit has also been placed on the main floor. Come out to see what else we were up to during our unexpected spring closure.

No matter the situation, nature has the way to calm minds, rejuvenate the soul, and re-energize spirits. Take some time in nature, and reap the benefits it offers. There is no better way to social distance than a quiet hike.