Howard Conservancy nature camp prepares students to return to classroom

Sabastian and Mason Chizhik enjoy science classes, but they say their teachers often ask questions about nature that leave them searching in vain for answers.

Now, having gone to the Earth Art summer camp this week at the Howard Conservancy, the brothers from Marriottsville say they've gained a wealth of knowledge about the great outdoors that they will retrieve when called upon in class.

"Last year, my teacher, she liked nature, so she kept asking us questions," said Mason, a rising third-grader. "I finally know a lot of stuff from here."

Earth Art caps eight weeks of nature camps at the Howard Conservancy, a 300-year-old, 232-acre farm in Woodstock with four miles of trails and a multitude of animal and plant life. Students at the camp created digitized films with hundreds of images, made crafts, kept journals and sketchbooks and caught crayfish and salamanders from the farm's streams.

Sabastian, a rising fifth-grader, agreed with his brother that he could apply lessons learned in camp during the school year. "We learned about plants and animals, so we can use this knowledge," he said. "The background of nature that I learned here, I can use it to support answers that I have."

The camp has goats, chickens, a diamondback terrapin, a corn snake and a gray tree frog. Education manager Ashley Jarvis said the conservancy keeps the snake and frog separated, adding, "That would be a circle-of-life lesson."

The camp aims to teach kids about environmental issues but also offers lessons for the classroom beyond the sciences, Jarvis said.

"We try to focus on nature primarily, but also talking about things that they're learning about in school and things they should be getting to as far as developmental outcomes go," she said. "Some of it might be school-readiness skills we are also working on underneath all of this."

The organizers teach the importance of sorting, listening and, for kindergartners, keeping up with one's belongings. Lessons focus on texture, motor skills and understanding the color indicators in nature, with red and yellow being danger signals, Jarvis said.

"With the older kids, we're looking into group interaction a little bit more," she said, "maybe how do they work together, how are they self-directed. If you give them a project and have them go, how much structure do they need? We try to give them a lot of openness with our direction."

Jarvis said she hopes to post online the short film clips that the campers make. "It's amazing what kinds of stuff they really come up with, how creative they really are," she said.

Josie Shirah, a rising seventh-grader from Columbia, said such camp activities as examining plants and crayfish have given her valuable lessons about science, which is among her favorite subjects.

Conservancy officials said they reach out to more than 6,000 children each year through such programs as nature field trips and the summer camps. Jarvis said she hopes the summer programs gives students lessons they can use inside and outside the classroom.

"I hope they take away from this that camp is a very safe place where campers can leave all the rest of their baggage from the school year and all those structured opportunities behind and recreate their own person," she said. "I want them to walk away from camp … making them feel like a better person about themselves so they have more self-confidence, [like] they found talents they didn't know they had and maybe they found some new hobbies."

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