The Watershed Nature Camp quickly pivoted to Family Camp this spring, offering an outlet for cooped up families who craved a combination of safe activities and outdoor fun.
Camp Director Michelle Perkins designed 100 sessions, featuring 13 separate, themed programs that gave families the flexibility to choose morning, afternoon or weekend times that best fit their summer and work schedules. Each session was limited to clusters of 2-4 families and no more than a dozen people, with camp counselors teaching them from a safe distance. About 160 families attended Family Camp this summer.
“While we miss our traditional camp, the Family Camp has offered safe, outdoor fun for scores of families,” Michelle said.
With experience teaching outdoors, Watershed educators and camp counselors blended fun adventures with nature-based education. On a recent outing to the Stony Brook, Watershed Educator Samantha Bernstein and Counselor Eliza Rosenthale led parents and campers in a discussion of watersheds before capturing some critters from the streambed. The groups identified the benthic macroinvertebrates as the Watershed staff explained how the presence or absence of these bugs indicates the health of a stream.
While interest was high in all of the offerings, Michelle said her “rock star staff” and many families enjoyed the popular stream programs and built rock sculptures, explored animal life and did clay painting. Most sessions had the option to tie dye a camp tie shirt. “For people who have been to our camp before, the stream programs are one of the hallmarks at camp and they are a blast every time.
No matter if the day included water wander or constructing a forest shelter, families were excited to get outside and build connections together in organized, safe programs.
Having the parents at Family Camp added a new dimension. Camp counselors Sarah Falk and Aubrey Kristensen, who have worked at the Watershed Nature Camp for three summers, said they missed the spirited energy and “chaos” of having all the campers together, while parents added a new dynamic to the summer.
“I had one mom who was grateful that she got to experience camp with her kids and see what they got to do all day,” Sarah said.
The Watershed, eager to sustain its outreach efforts in Trenton despite COVID-19, reached out to Christina Seix Academy (CSA), a vibrant preK-8 school for advanced students from underserved communities.
On a recent outing, CSA student Deepanshu Mukheja, 10, dipped a test tube into the Stony Brook to get some sample water for a pH balance test. He and his mother, Gunjan, attended several sessions and enjoyed tie-dying t-shirts.
“This was my golden chance to attend this camp and spend some time with him,” said Gunjan, who worked 60-hours a week before the pandemic curtailed her hours.
Maggie Miller, who attended the Watershed camps growing up, said she wanted a similar experience for her sons, Kurt, 6, and Calvin, 4. She said the three Family Camp sessions they attended, “felt extremely safe – everyone was safe and apart and everyone was very conscientious.
“I just appreciated having some kind of programming. There are camps open for a full day and we didn’t feel comfortable with that, but Family Camp was a middle ground that I did feel comfortable with,” she said. “It was nice to have specific programming … and have an expert there who is teaching you about animals, plants and habitats, and things you don’t already know.”
Lawrence resident Amanda Povlich, after deciding this summer would focus on local activities, attended a Family Camp hike and campfire program and her two daughters Lindsay, 9, and Natalie, 6.
“We wanted to find little treasures in our local community to enjoy as a family, she said. “Our Family Camp night was magical. Having to wear masks didn’t even take away from the fun. We met two other young families and have found such joy in our close-to-home adventures.”
The hurricanes, tropical storms and heat presented challenges this year when there wasn’t an indoor space for a hasty retreat.
“Even though Family Camp is different from past years, I think it was a great experience. Everyone is suffering from cabin fever and Family Camp offered some structured activities along with some free, exploration time,” said Aubrey. “These are outdoor programs, we were prepared for anything Mother Nature will give you.”