A quest for knowledge 
in the great outdoors

Last modified: 11/3/2015 2:16:55 PM
As they arrived at their forestry research station in the woods at Sargent Center on Thursday, the first thing to grab the attention of a dozen or so middle-school-age campers was a large brown toad.

“It’s Morgan Freeman the Third,” one shouted, as Daisy Young of Hancock scooped up the toad in her hands, showing it off briefly before the animal squirmed free.

“Give him at least 2 yards,” said counselor Ian Lockwood, as the campers swarmed around the escaping toad, trying to decide if he was the same one that they’d christened Morgan Freeman earlier in the week. Or was he perhaps Morgan Freeman Two, also spotted previously?

That question was never resolved, and it took Lockwood and counselor Maura Genova a few minutes to reassemble the group. But in short order the middle-school kids were carefully studying water samples they’d collected the previous day. Some of them observed the levels of clay, silt and sand that had settled in the bottom of a jar and estimated the percentages of each material. Others, after adding a drop of liquid to a test tube of water and shaking the tube vigorously, compared the now-purple sample to a color chart to determine acidity. They were outdoors, having fun, making friends — and at the same time practicing their math skills.

The campers are all students from Great Brook School and South Meadow School. They were attending ConVal Quest, a week-long overnight camp session run by Nature’s Classroom, which conducts environmental and outdoor adventure programs at Sargent Center. Sponsored by the Peterborough Rotary Club, ConVal Quest is in its first year. It’s intended to provide a sleep-away, outdoor camp opportunity for middle school students in the ConVal district who might otherwise get to go to camp.

“We’re teaching academic skills in an outdoor environment, trying to bring it to life,” said Larry Chambers, the school program director for Nature’s Classroom, on Wednesday. “It’s been very successful so far. One of the counselors told me the other day how a kid said to him, ‘Hey, this is kind of like math.’ That’s the whole idea.”

The 74 ConVal students spent time each morning in small groups doing a variety of activities — some of the forestry group had made their own bows in the pioneering session, then used them for archery later in the week. In the afternoon, the students joined with campers from other programs for kayaking and swimming on Half Moon Pond, climbing on the center’s low ropes and high ropes courses, and other outdoor activities.

“We have kids here from all over New England,” Chambers said. “[The ConVal campers] aren’t isolated. They’re right in there with everyone else. It’s been very successful.”

Carly Kimball of Bennington, one of the ConVal campers, said she had enjoyed the low ropes course. “You do a lot of team building; it’s really fun. I feel like everyone’s having a blast,” Carly said.

“We’re learning all about plants,” said Abby Jones of Hancock. “I want to learn new things. It’s a really cool program.”

Daisy Young, the girl who grabbed the toad, said not everyone knew each other prior to camp. “It gives me a chance to meet new people, and I like that,” Daisy said.

This year’s program was fully funded by the Rotary Club, after the ConVal School Board and administration decided to eliminate money for the program when the district’s budget proposal was turned down by voters. But staffers at the two middle schools publicized the program to students and parents, and selected the students to participate. There was no cost to any of the students.

“The principals and staff really grabbed hold and ran with this,” said Peterborough Rotary Club member Andy Peterson on Thursday. “The program is called KEY to Adventure. Key stands for Kinship, Environment and You and it’s very well thought out. They had some great, dynamic teachers and counselors who really engage with the kids.”

Peterson said club members participated in the program during the week, meeting with the kids and learning about their experiences.

“I hope the reaction we get from families and students will be positive and we can sustain and grow this program going forward,” he said.

Chambers said the Nature’s Classroom organizers will be providing feedback on the program to the School Board and administration.

“We’ll have good evidence of what we’ve been doing and what the kids accomplished this week,” he said. “We’d love to provide more next year.”

Great Brook School Principal Jim Elder said students told him they have enjoyed the camp.

“I checked up with the kids on Thursday and they had a wonderful time,” Elder said. “On a 10 scale, the kids were giving at least a nine; a lot of 9.5s and tens. It’s such a wonderful opportunity that the Rotarians provided. I sure hope we can figure out how to do something like this again next year.”


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